Shepard Fairey designs ‘Person of the Year’ for Time magazine

Shepard Fairy. Time Magazine, Person of the Year, 2011. Photo: Shepard Fairey's cover design. Credit: Time.

When Time magazine, voice of the establishment, chooses “The Protester” as its person of the year,  only one artist is really suitable for the job of creating the publication’s inevitably ironic cover. Shepard Fairey, designer dissident, stepped up to the plate.

Ai Weiwei he’s not.

The Los Angeles graphic designer, 41, whose thriving youth-market business, Obey Giant, encompasses a wide array of retail products, produced a signature image for Time Warner’s flagship franchise. The masked, shrouded, bust-length head staring out from newsstands has all the marks of the artist’s familiar brand. As in his big, corny paintings of Arab women wielding AK-47s, which claim an essential (and insupportable) superiority for maternal benevolence, it’s wince-inducing.

Fairey’s work, as I wrote at the time of his tiresome 2009 survey exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, is to current graphic design what ’70s sampling was to pop music. The mash-up of fragmentary sources, all on vivid display in “The Protester,” includes Andy Warhol’s high-contrast silk-screen technique, Russian Constructivist propaganda (Varvara Stepanova, the Stenberg brothers, Alexander Rodchenko), anonymous news photographs, American government-issue engravings (stamps, currency, pamphlets), Barbara Kruger’s red-white-and-black Minimalist images with text, psychedelic advertising, Mexico’s Popular Graphics Workshop from the 1940s and more.

The style oozes cozy, collectible nostalgia. On the cover of Time, the schmaltzy result trivializes the portentous power — and authentic potential — of the “Arab spring,” Occupy Wall Street and whatever might-or-might-not be breaking now in Russia. Questioning authority never looked more corporate and conventional.

— Christopher Knight [LA Times Culture Monster]


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