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Shepard Fairey is best known for his iconic “Hope” portrait of President Barack Obama, an image that graced countless T-shirts during the 2008 presidential campaign. Now a new exhibit showcases the street artist’s nonpolitical side.
Fairey’s small collection on display at the Irvine Contemporary art gallery features musicians, not lawmakers. These new screen-printed portraits boast the same clean graphic lines and simple shapes that made his Obama portrait so powerful, although he eschews its patriotic palette for warmer hues.
In the exhibit, titled “Image/Fame/Memory,” Fairey’s work hangs alongside photographs by other artists that he used as sources and as inspiration. The arrangement allows audiences to compare the portraits, providing new insight into Fairey’s artistic process.
The pairs of portraits read as collaborations, a partnership that Fairey and the original photographers acknowledge by both signing each piece.
Fairey’s work is often based on other artists’ photography. In fact, he recently settled a legal battle with the Associated Press over the his use of the news organization’s photo in his famous “Hope” portrait.
This time, his subjects are Joe Strummer, guitarist for the British punk band The Clash, Paul Simonon, the band’s bassist, as well as Nico, the Velvet Underground singer/muse. The portraits, rendered on wood and paper, are based on photographs by Kate Simon and Billy Name.
The exhibit also includes photos of other musicians, artists and writers, taken by Simon, Name, and photographers Curtis Knapp and Gerard Malanga.
Despite sharing a passion for the art-scene denizens of mid-’60s New York, the photographers’ work has never been shown together. In fact, many of the pieces are on display for the first time.
Some of the images are iconic. Most are not; the photographs were chosen to show the more personal, intimate and candid ways a photographer interacts with his subject. In one set of photo booth images of Andy Warhol, the photographer himself is in the shot with the artist.
For the most part, you’ve seen these faces before. There’s Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Patti Smith, Edie Sedgwick and Warhol. But you probably haven’t seen them like this — these are the photographs that didn’t necessarily make it into the magazines or coffee table books. These shots often require a second look.
“I’m hoping to give people some surprises, some views of people that are famous, to give people another look at them,” said Martin Irvine, the gallery’s director.
Warhol seems to have a hand in nearly every piece, whether as a subject or a muse. Even Fairey’s work references the famous artist’s style of screen printing on wood as well as paper.
Fairey’s portraits reanimate the original works, paying homage to their significance while updating them for new audiences. “What I love about the photographic image is how it continues, how it lives on in different media, just as Shepard is doing,” Irvine said. “It makes the images live again.”
Irvine Contemporary, 1412 14th St. NW, will feature “Image/Fame/Memory” through April 16.