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Duality of Humanity

Shepard Fairey explores the complexities of our time

Boyish and clean cut, skater punk and engineer of dissent, genius behind the Obey Giant street art movement, Shepard Fairey is an artist who understands the complexity of the human experience. His current show “Duality of Humanity” highlights the ironies of fighting wars to achieve peace and working towards environmental sustainability for the sake of continuing endless consumption.

When asked why he picked the Tenderloin gallery as the appropriate venue for his work, Fairey adjusts his blue velour collar and flashes a toothy smirk, “because it’s punk as fuck.”

One hundred pieces of Fairey’s mixed media canvases fill three rooms for “Duality of Humanity", an exhibit first inspired by the popular culture image of an American soldier in Vietnam who proudly wears a peace sign. Fairey highlights and replicates this contradiction in a large-scale work where a Vietnamese soldier boy proudly totes an artillery weapon over his shoulder but wears a red flower in his cap and a peace sign hovers in the bottom of the frame. This is a consistent theme of the retrospective. Fairey marries images of children with weapons and peace signs to intimate that war adulterates us all. The contradiction is evident that sometimes we are simultaneously the oppressor and the oppressed.

With vibrant cardinal reds overlapping earthy browns, Fairey’s smaller pieces in “Duality of Humanity” resemble Soviet Union postal stamps with representations of popular culture figures such as Led Zeppelin and Public Enemy.

Fairey’s ethos as an artist is inspired by the Russian Constructivists, who rejected the idea of art for arts sake and embraced the role of art as a social responsibility. As a testament to this philosophy, Fairey recently aligned with Barack Obama and created an art campaign entitled “Hope/Progress” which embodies the candidate’s platform of change.

Fairey sites the influences of contemporary artists like Andy Warhol, Banksy and Robbie Conal in his work. Classically trained at the Rhode Island School of Design, Fairey began his career in 1989 on the streets of New York tagging images of Andre the Giant and his posse on billboards and concrete. The artist will shortly be honored with a major exhibit at¬¬¬¬ The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA/Boston). On a recent trip in San Francisco Fairey narrowly escaped the police while he was working on a billboard on Folsom St. by shimmying down a drain pipe. Shepard Fairey is an artist who understands the complexity of the human experience.

“Duality of Humanity” runs at White Walls Gallery, 835 Larkin St., though October 4. For more information please visit www.whitewallssf.com.