"Obey" was inspired by John Carpenter's 1988 B-movie They Live, in which wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper finds sunglasses that reveal that skull-faced aliens control the world via subliminal messages everywhere that say "Obey," "Consume," "Conform." "It's a really stupid movie that has a really profound premise," explains Fairey. "It struck me that people tend to follow the path of least resistance. They don't want to rock the boat. . . . But when you say 'Obey,' it's actually very offensive to people." By saying "Obey" on posters and stickers slapped on walls, lamp posts, and water towers all over the world, Fairey wanted people to question all the other crappy lines they were being fed.
Here was his subject. And here was his style. He mined the language of propaganda as well as the language of rebellion, creating a sexy, catchy brew of punk, Barbara Kruger, Russian Constructivism, Soviet and Maoist propaganda, World War II posters, '60s psychedelia, pop Che Guevera graphics, Andy Warhol, and Art Nouveau. His designs are often bold and simple. His colors are limited: mainly red and black, for style and because he was — and still is — photocopying or screenprinting much of it himself.
The ICA presents his posters of bad-ass Vietnam-era soldiers sporting peace signs, sultry Asian ladies with guns, and acid critiques of the Bush administration. Obey Bush One Hell of a Leader (2004), a broadside from the 2004 presidential race, turns President Bush into a smiling vampire drooling blood. Elsewhere, Fairey reworks the presidential seal, turning the eagle into a vulture clutching a bomb and a withered olive branch.
Also here are portraits of revolutionary leaders: Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Subcomandante Marcos. (He doesn't necessarily endorse all these folks.) Part of what makes these images so attractive is their nostalgia — Fairey channels the old radical chic, its style, its inspiration.
The Obama poster, made to propel Obama into office, fits into this group. Decades after the art world (mostly) abandoned political content and adopted the party line that political art has no effect on the real world, here's a sudden art phenomenon to disprove that argument. Like much of Fairey's recent gallery work, the stenciled, collaged version of the Obama design here is richly layered. The familiar image in red, sky blue, and cream appears atop collaged newspaper clippings, stars filled with Andre's face, and printed patterns.
There are dead spots in the show, like Fairey's generic music posters. Why is everything so neatly framed? Why didn't Fairey go nuts on the walls of at least one room? In the past, I've been wary of his slickness, which can make his work feel like empty hipster advertising (something he actually does on the side). I'm still bothered by the way words on Fairey's posters tell you to hate this war or that giant fascist boot even as he makes them look so seductively cool.
Over the past couple of years, his work has grown increasingly lush, as ornate currency designs, decorative Islamic-style patterns, and hints of Civil War–era political cartoonist Thomas Nast have crept into his graphics. You can see some of this in the piece that ends the show: Obey Middle East Mural, a new stenciled and collaged 37-foot-wide, 15-foot-tall blockbuster across four canvases. Layered atop a catalogue of Fairey's icons are four giant images: a stylized hand flashing the peace sign, a woman parting a curtain, two rifles with flowers stuck in barrels, and a woman in a headscarf carrying a rifle on her back with a rose in the end. The sheer size and detail is astonishing. At least at first. But the individual images don't cohere.