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Shepard Fairey, Tortilla Chips and the Dallas Contemporary
by Jerome Weeks 7 Feb 2012

Street artist Shepard Fairey got a lot of media attention while he was here this past week, painting wall murals around town. But he was also signing books, selling clothing and spinning tracks at a dance party. Welcome to the Dallas Contemporary’s New Model Art Museum: part-nightclub, part-style magazine, part idea factory.

CTA TBD

Three of Shepard Fairey’s Dallas wall murals are on Singleton near Sylvan (like this one), a fourth is at the Belmont Hotel and the fifth (below, bottom) is outside the Dallas Contemporary

Street artist Shepard Fairey was in Dallas this past week, painting wall murals commissioned by the Dallas Contemporary. But that’s not all he did. As KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, the Contemporary isn’t only about the art on the walls inside a museum.

  • Front Row Q&A with Fairey
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

[Loud dance music and crowd noises continue under]

It’s a crowded Saturday night at the Dallas Contemporary. Artist Shepard Fairey has finished the five wall murals he and his crew have been painting around town. Now they’re celebrating at the Contemporary’s annual Phenomenon party, and Fairey’s spinning the music tracks himself.

Peter Doroshenko is the Contemporary’s director.

Doroshenko: “When we contacted Shepard, I basically said, it’s great that you’re going to be working so hard for seven days, but we want you to deejay your own party [laughs]. And he loves deejaying, so it just seemed a natural.”

Fairey became known in the late ‘90s in graffiti circles for plastering the word “OBEY” on every building and billboard he could climb (and getting arrested some 16 times in the process). He gained wider attention in Exit Through the Gift Shop, the Oscar-nominated documentary in 2010 that helped bring graffiti art off the streets. Even if you know nothing about street art, you’ve seen Fairey’s famous ‘Hope’ poster with President Obama’s face — a poster that got Fairey embroiled in a nasty copyright infringement lawsuit and countersuit when the Associated Press objected to Fairey’s use of an AP freelance photographer’s work.

Renaissance masters employed studios filled with apprentices working on multiple projects. That’s how Fairey — and many artists since Andy Warhol’s Factory days — pay the bills. He still follows his illegal street-tagging ways, but these days, he earns museum commissions, has his own design studio and clothing line. He says the art-world success that people see (and may complain about) is only the tip of the iceberg — they don’t see all the work that goes into it.

And the Contemporary took full advantage of his work crew and his multi-product efforts. There were the painted murals, and while he was here, a public gallery talk, a book signing and tonight’s dance party — which includes a pop-up store in one gallery space that’s selling Fairey’s photos, posters and clothing.

Cindy Ferguson Brey calls herself a ‘reformed graduate student.’ She’s a fan of Fairey’s designs – and his deejaying.

Ferguson: “The mixes are great. I see some of the younger people on the dance floor, they’re like, oh yeah, this is that Jay-Z song, and they’re like, wait, what is this? That’s the song Jay-Z pulled from to make his song. So it’s an interesting sort of generational shift.”

A ‘generational shift.’ Local museums have certainly used live music to attract a younger crowd before this — and they’ve used high fashion, hot food and hard-edged urban styles. But they’ve mostly employed these for one-shot, specialty shows — such as a Goss-Michael Foundation opening or the Dallas Museum of Art’s current blockbuster Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition. Museums aren’t the only ones, either. Theaters, dance companies, music ensembles: Almost any art group in North Texas has tried to offset the aging of its traditional audience pool by figuring out how to snag some small part of the youthful, monied folk who, in Dallas, seem to devote themselves almost entirely to looking good in the right clubs and chic new restaurants.

Yet here some of those folk are, crowded in line to get into the Contemporary on a Saturday night. Overheard while standing in that line: one young gentlemen explaining to his friends who Shepard Fairey was, what the Contemporary is. They had no idea, they were tagging along because they’d been told it was a cool something-or-other with drinks and music and food trucks.

Since Doroshenko’s arrival as director fifteen months ago, the Contemporary has attracted people to its former metalworking plant with a stream of attention-getting events and happenings, many of which come with dance music and a functioning deejay. The museum has held fashion shows, complete with runways. For a fundraiser, an edible “interactive food installation’ by New York artist Jennifer Rubell was created with one ton of tortilla chips, fresh queso made on-site and salsa by last year’s Texas State Fair salsa winner. Rubell’s more conventional sculptural exhibition, Nutcrackers, included eighteen, life-size female mannequins — whose legs functioned as nutcrackers. One ton of Texas pecans was provided for the bemused audience participation.Two days after that opening, some 25 clients of Austin tattoo artist Jason Brooks (above) paraded on a catwalk — displaying their extensive skin art.

Such programming can make the Contemporary seem a hip nightclub, being a little outrageous, trying to attract young trend-seekers. And Doroshenko has said he certainly wants the Contemporary to be talked about. But he says his staff is on the look-out for any signs of crass “showmanship or B.S.” in such events. Besides, he says, the Contemporary’s mission is three-fourths art, only one-fourth popular culture. It’s just that art draws from popular culture these days, while popular culture often provides context for the art. They’re joined at the hip.

Doroshenko: “The DNA has gotten messy with traditional fine art forms.”

The art needn’t even be inside the museum — as with Fairey’s commissioned murals. Doroshenko is committed to getting ‘off-campus,’ to “give back,” as he says, to the city. It also widens the Contemporary’s footprint, its impact outside its industrial neighborhood-Design District location. For part of the first show Doroshenko curated at the Contemporary, French artist Michel Verjux projected a giant abstract image of light on the side of the old Dallas County Services building.

Again, this kind of thing has been done before, elsewhere, especially on the East and West Coasts. But not as a regular format, not as part of the essential programming of a prominent  North Texas art institution. For this year’s Dallas Art Fair in April, Doroshenko will be hosting a panel on ‘biennales.’ That’s the generic term, of course, for some of the leading art fairs in the world — from the Whitney Biennial in New York to the Venice Biennale. Doroshenko himself headed up the Lithuanian national contingent to the Venice Biennale — twice. And he hosted a similar panel at last year’s Dallas Art Fair. For Doroshenko, ‘biennale’ has become such an over-loaded term — young artists tell him getting into a biennale is their big career goal — that it needs to be examined, explored , even exploded to a degree.

This time, there will be more than just a panel of experts — because, as Doroshenko puts it, they needed a real biennale for the panel to talk about.So there’ll be a constellation of related events with visiting international artists in the Neiman Marcus downtown, the Design District and other locations. And Doroshenko’s at work on another such public event for Election Day in November.

In all this, Doroshenko sees the Contemporary not as a trendy nightclub with more interesting art-happenings than usual but as a magazine — a magazine of ideas. On his first day as director, he says, he laid out a dozen art and lifestyle publications for the Contemporary’s staff members.

Which ideas, he asked them, did they find exciting?

Doroshenko: “And of course, everybody gravitated to magazines that had fashion, design, painting – basically, it was more inclusive. The art magazines? Yes, they were interesting. But  — not as interesting as the rest of the world.”

Skin art catwalk photo by Andrew Ryan Shepherd.

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