Shepard Fairey may be trying out a new career. The artist, known for his OBEY Giant street art project, among other things, makes an appearance in a skit on an upcoming episode of the wildly popular IFC sketch-comedy show Portlandia. And we’ve got a preview for you.
Created by dynamic comic duo Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, Portlandia kicked off its fifth season a few weeks ago. In this episode (which airs Thursday January 29 at 10 PM EST) shock art comes in for satirical treatment, as Armisen and Brownstein, outfitted in horribly unfashionable business attire, peddle “shock art supplies” to art students at a warehouse-type art supply store called—you guessed it—”Shocking Art Supplies.”
Fairey makes a cameo as a store clerk identified only as “Shepard F.” In a faux television commercial, with a cheap, public-access aesthetic, Fairey dutifully demonstrates the store’s products—”pre-smashed” television sets, “upside down flags,” stencils, and doll parts—as Armisen and Brownstein hawk these seemingly vital components of artworks that are intended to outrage.
Holding a doll with its head on backwards and keeping a straight face, Fairey deems it a “radical juxtaposition,” then asks: “What does that say about our society?” It’s about “rebellion,” “authenticity,” and “subversion,” shout Armisen and Brownstein.
Catching Up With Armisen and Brownstein
We caught up with Armisen and Brownstein to ask about the inspiration for the sketch. Armisen, who attended the School of Visual Arts, told us via telephone: “I just kind of noticed over the years there are certain things art students always use, like baby doll parts and broken TVs. They’ve stood the test of time as materials to use for art. It’s not a criticism. I just thought, well, what about an art supply store that does it for you, where it’s all ready-made.”
Asked why the store salespeople wear such tacky outfits, Brownstein said: “Fred and I like the juxtaposition between how people perceive fine art and creativity with, I guess, what is just the exact opposite, just more corporate, benign, middle-of-the-road kind of characters who seem like they are coming at it from a purely monetary, business standpoint.”
Armisen adds that the decision to put Shepard Fairey in the sketch is “just sort of an inside joke,” adding that he is a “huge fan.” His all time favorite artist is Joe Coleman, he says, and also counts Mike Davis, Bill Viola, and Mike Kelley among his top picks. Among her favorites, Brownstein listed video artist Ryan Trecartin, painter Mike Brophy, and Zachary Drucker.
This is not the first time Portlandia has explored the foibles of the art world. In past seasons characters run a business based on supplying local coffee shops with “bad art for good walls” (they are the same characters running the Shock Art store) and offered lessons in “shock” art to students at Portlandia Community College by encouraging them to incorporate Ronald McDonald into their work (see Portlandia Takes Aim at the Contemporary Art World).
The Trifecta of Corporate Logos
Another recurring theme among art students, Armisen says, is incorporating what he calls “the trifecta of corporate logos: Ronald McDonald, Coca-Cola, and Mickey Mouse. I pictured a sketch where the CEO of McDonald’s is like ‘why do they keep attacking us? I’m sorry that we’re a restaurant!'” He emphasizes again “it’s not a criticism, just the way that everyone begins as soon as they emerge, like a rock band that has to play Louie Louie.”
Further deepening the duo’s art-world cred, they enlisted famous contemporary photographer Catherine Opie to shoot their promo pictures. Opie, a self-professed fan since the show’s first season, talked about shooting the promo pics in an online video: “My portraits are so quiet and so still and they’re also really serious. So I was a little bit surprised at first that they wanted to go for my style. But they wanted my style because as a comedian, you don’t need to make comic-looking images.” Last season’s promotional photos were shot by Alex Prager in the signature “face in a crowd” style that she has honed.
Armisen says the idea is to create a theme of sorts for each season much the way a musician would with an album. And speaking of music, both he and Brownstein, well-known as accomplished musicians both have full time gigs at the moment. Armisen is the band leader on Late Night With Seth Meyers, while Brownstein has regrouped with her 1990s band Sleater Kinney, has a new album out, and is in the midst of a tour.
Given Armisen’s attendance at SVA, we asked whether he had ever harbored dreams of becoming a fine artist.
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I went to art school because I wanted to pursue music. Everyone knows that’s what you do, just like the Who and the Clash. It’s Rock Band 101.”
Artnet News got a sneak peek at the clip, and you can too before the full episode airs this Thursday.
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