At last night's private preview for the Halsey's 30th Anniversary exhibition, The Insistent Image: Recurrent Motifs in the Art of Shepard Fairey and Jasper Johns, the spotlight was on Shepard Fairey, who worked the crowd with an ease and warmth that one would expect from a good Charleston-raised boy, even if he was a rebellious punk back in the day. While I've interviewed Shepard at length (by phone) for two different Charleston Magazine stories, I'd never met him in person before last night. He's got these intense squinty eyes and is slightly hunched, like he hasn't yet physically unfolded from bending over his artwork, and was generously chatting with his fans, speaking with keen depth and intensity. Really thoughtful and also really funny, as anyone who was lucky enough to catch his sold out dialogue at the Music Hall last week will know.
The real surprise, however, was how intense and powerful, how layered and evocative, his images are up close and in person. Overviewing the gallery from a distance, the colors and graphics evoke a pleasing and alluring aesthetic, but take a closer look and the message of climate threat, greed, waste, empty idealism, American glut and cavalier capitalism seeps through the strong visual beauty of the works. A subtext that is fitting for an artist who has always worked on many levels, taking street art to an elevated discourse about the provocative power of art and image in the public sphere.
A highlight of the night was basically having a roomful of Jasper Johns' images almost to myself, while everyone was huddling around Fairey. Talk about layered and mulit-leveled. Johns' work smacks of sophisticated surreptition, and I could readily see the parallels that Halsey director Mark Sloan, who conceived of and curated this not-to-be-missed show, saw all along.
But the real bonus of the evening was when Sloan said, "Hey, want to see our secret movie theatre?" and he proceeded to take me and a few others through a back gallery door into a small tucked away alley off Calhoun, where the Halsey is showing an incredible video, including drone footage of Fairey's mural on top of the Francis Marion, for free, 24-7. It's the best deal in Charleston. And it goes to show you that Sloan, I believe, is the real superstar behind this blockbuster exhibit, and in fact, behind all the Halsey's bold work for the last few decades.
When I see the strong black lines of Shepard Fairey's OBEY icon crowning the Francis Marion, I can't help but think of Andre the Giant's gentle bumbling character, Fezzik, in the 1987 classic film, The Princess Bride. Andre as Fezzik is the loyal, fretful, beloved foil in the movie, and while supposedly fierce, he's more kind than anything, and he steals the show. In a fight scene, he demures to his opponent, The Man in Black:
Fezzik: "It's not my fault being the biggest and the strongest. [smirks] I don't even exercise."
[The Man in Black charges once, no effect. Charges again and grunts/strains trying to budge Fezzik]
The Man in Black: "Look, are you just fiddling around with me or what?"
Fezzik: "I just want you to feel that you're doing well."
That my friends, is Mark Sloan. The biggest and strongest art advocate/educator/enthusiast/mastermind around these parts, and beyond. Sure Shepard Fairey is generating much deserved buzz and excitement to town (to wit -- the 600 person waiting list for his gallery talk this weekend!), but Sloan is the one who deserves the real glory. He's the Fezzik who just wants artists like Fairey to do well.