Aritsts in the court of Obamalot


By Jeffrey Cyphers Wright

The fairytale lives on in iconic images from the long campaign

“This whole thing’s a fairy tale.” Who can forget those ill-chosen words sputtered by former President Clinton about Barack Obama’s win in the South Carolina primary. The truth is, we like fairytales and whether there’s an eventual happy ending to our political transformation or not, the enchantment has been exciting for the majority of people.

And so it’s a double coincidence, that Shepard Fairey who produced the most iconic image of the campaign, is also from South Carolina. Mirroring Obama’s appeal across the aisle, Fairey is a somewhat of a crossover artist himself. He went to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, but also generated a buzz as a designer in skateboard culture.

James Danziger, director of Danziger Projects, decided to put on a celebratory show that drew from the campaign’s distinctive imagery and colorful personalities. He said that the “Obama campaign people were very sophisticated and proactive in contacting artists.” Their effort was uniformly successful as all of the commissioned work was sold. The pieces in the show are mostly left over from the artists’ copies. In addition to commissioned editions of silkscreens by Fairey and others, the show included photos, a painting, a banner and a “bootleg” skateboard.

Among the pieces commissioned by Obama’s campaign team was designer Lance Wyman’s “Obama 08”. Wyman was lionized for his stylized, striped “Mexico ’68” Olympic logo. Another lion, Robert Indiana turned his trademark LOVE into HOPE. His eye-catching efforts for the campaign were concurrently on display at Jim Kempner Fine Art including a sculpture of HOPE that was at the convention in Denver. All told, Indiana brought in a half million dollars for Obama’s election.

Michelle’s Glamour

Danziger himself commissioned Obama’s graphics team of Sol Sender, Andy Keene, and Amanda Gentry to make a print of their circle and stripes logo. “I was most pleased to get them because they hadn’t done anything. There was no place to get the logo and they created these prints specifically for the show.” The Chicago trio also produced a print depicting the successive stages that led to the final logo.

Working independently from the campaign, Mickalene Thomas contributed a crisp, effulgent silkscreen of Michelle Obama. Thomas who will have a solo show next month at Lehmann Maupin, is best known for sassy portraits and odalisques of contemporary African-American sirens. Her cropped headshot was “posterized” for emphasis. The black hair, white skin and sky-blue background proclaimed royalty ala Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O and Diana Ross. There was glamour to it as well as fierce boldness.

Thomas made her portrait independent of the campaign, as did Mr. Brainwash. Danziger met Brainwash at the Scope art fair in Miami. The artist depicted Obama as Superman on an industrial-size painted container accompanied by the following text: “Rosa Parks sat, so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King walked, so that Barack Obama could run. Obama ran, so we could fly.”

Danziger asked the artist to do a similar piece on canvas for the show and the result is stronger than the original. The red, white and blue have been augmented with the flag’s stars now on a black background. A faux frame with decorative motives is painted in gold around the canvas’s edge.

A more vulnerable portrait by Annie Liebovitz shows Obama at the beginning of the journey, in 2006. Pulitzer Prize winning photographer David Turnley’s image of Obama is presented beside Shepard Fairey’s poster “VOTE”. Fairey was evidently supplied the photo by the campaign graphics team and he credited the photographer.

Fairey did not however, credit Manny Garcia for the photograph used in the single most recognized image of the campaign, the original poster “PROGRESS” (and subsequently “HOPE”). You may have heard about the current lawsuit over this. Danziger admits he may have started the row when he first tried to identify the original photo. It is interesting that Mr. Garcia is not behind the proceedings. Garcia was contracted to AP, who is the plaintiff. Danziger thinks this whole “copyright issue is a distraction.” Again, we find ourselves in Warholian territory.

Art for Change

Despite the flap, “nobody is unhappy about the show,” Danziger said. “Manny Garcia is actually happy and proud that Shepard Fairey used his picture.” In true proletarian humility and communal generosity, artists contributed to help promote the CHANGE we all want.

Some might call this kind of work propaganda. Indeed, some of the work deliberately recycled previous activist styles. A poster commissioned by Move On emulated populist movements from a century ago and even evoked the Lincoln/ Obama comparison.

According to the fairy tale — anybody can be president. Anyone can be famous too. And it never hurts to be a righteous underdog fighting the man. That’s the best part of the fairy tale. By the way, Shepard Fairey was arrested on the way to his opening in Boston this month — for “tagging.”

Not everyone believes in fairy tales but it’s harder not to believe. Maybe Jesse Jackson said it best (in South Carolina): “Keep HOPE alive.”

Courtesy Danziger Projects

A silkscreen of Michelle Obama, by Mickalene Thomas.

Courtesy Danziger Projects

Shepard Fairey ubiquitous “HOPE” poster is currently the subject of a lawsuit about the heretofore un-credited photographer, Manny Garcia, who captured the original image.