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Arts & Entertainment

Shepard Fairey Starts a Conversation at the Dallas Contemporary

The artist’s latest art exhibit, brought to Dallas by Pedro Alonzo, showcases the evolution of Fairey’s work throughout his career.
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Jonathan Zizzo

Shepard Fairey’s artistic message is much more conversational than it was in 1989, when he created his “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” street art campaign as a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, which grew to include his signature OBEY slogan. Or even in 2008, when he created the iconic “Hope” poster to support Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The 52-year-old Los Angeles-based artist still probes America’s most glaring social issues, but now he does so in a way that he hopes will inspire dialogue, not disputes.

His metamorphosis, from rebellious street artist to thoughtful provocateur, is currently on display at the Dallas Contemporary through July. The exhibition, “Backward Forward,” features original works created specifically for this show over the last two years. It was brought to Dallas by Pedro Alonzo, an adjunct curator at the Dallas Contemporary, who views the work as some of the artist’s most refined and directed creations. “The craft—all the work that goes into it, the evolution of his practice, the techniques, the precision—it is super inspiring,” Alonzo says. 

The two began collaborating in 2009, when Alonzo curated Fairey’s “Supply & Demand” show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The 20-year retrospective was bookended by the Andre the Giant image and the Obama poster. Many of the works highlighted Fairey’s cultural frustrations. “It was confrontational and defiant,” Alonzo says.

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Shepard Fairey Starts a Conversation at the Dallas Contemporary

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Since then, Alonzo has seen changes in the artist’s work. Fairey partly attributes the shift to books he has read: George Orwell’s 1984, Animal Farm, and Why I Write, and Yuval Noah’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The other factor has been the maturation of his political perspective. 

“This new work is less about pointing out the problem and kind of trying to generate a solution or an attitude of coming together, which is important in such a divisive time,” Alonzo says. The two had initially planned to launch the show in 2021, but the pandemic pushed it back to last fall. Alonzo says the delay worked in the show’s favor because of the messaging present in the work. 

More provocative renderings include a 3D-printed gun muzzle with a flower bursting from its barrel; portrayals of police brutality against protesters; and portraits of John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and other notable leaders whose agitation has led to meaningful change. Sprinkled throughout are gentler, more humorous images, such as one of a red bird featuring text beneath it that says, “Another day in the coal mine,” and a rendering that shows a line of people forced to stop by an imposing hand while being told to “HALT Mindless Conformity.” 

The undertone of the artistic message is evident, but it’s framed through a lens that invokes thought, not division. And for Fairey and Alonzo, that was why it was important to place this exhibition in Dallas, where it could reach people with differing perspectives. 

“Bringing this work to a place where you know some people might not agree with everything Shepard has to say or thinks is important,” Alonzo says. “The tone of the work isn’t about confrontation or condemnation. It’s really about dialogue, projecting ideas, and getting people to talk.” 


This story originally appeared in the January issue of D Magazine with the headline, “The Art of Progress.” Write to [email protected].

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