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second half


What: “Playerhaters” at Upper Playground
Who: Shepard Fairey, Ron English, Richard Colman, DALEK
When: Until January 7
Gallery hours Wed. through Sun. 12-7
Where: Upper Playground Gallery
228 Fillmore (415) 252-0144

Hate the player

By Sarah Lidgus

At times, the visual pollution of daily life is overwhelming and seemingly inescapable. The natural world is littered with artificial, deliberate distractions that create underlying yet perpetual annoyances and contribute to landscape sabotage. We commonly refer to this practice as “advertising,” although it could also be referred to as a guerrilla assault against the senses. A “guerrilla” is defined as a member of an independent unit engaging in irregular warfare using tools of harassment and sabotage; it therefore seems not only appropriate but justifiable to call the endless miles of billboards lining public highways guerrilla advertising. But what makes a good guerrilla?

All of the artists in Upper Playground’s new show entitled “Playerhaters” can be considered guerrilla-cum-artists in one dimension or another, whether through subject matter, process, or both. Ron English, known for his renegade billboard “renovations,” uses one of the most common advertisement strategies to promote his own agenda. Shepard Fairey plasters cities worldwide with his stencils, stickers, and posters. Both Richard Colman and DALEK started out using traditional graffiti tools — spray cans and public walls — to get their message across. Each of these artists took their work to the masses via the most accessible and logical space: public streets.

Most of Ron English’s work has appeal reminiscent of the airbrush booth at Great America, as if you could pick image number #45 off the wall and have it stenciled onto a t-shirt or jean jacket. Remarkably, however, English achieves the whimsical and somewhat trashy kitsch of the airbrush with oil paints. His work juxtaposes 21st-century icons like Marilyn Monroe, Peanuts, and KISS with 21st-century big business like McDonalds and Disney, who have become icons in their own rights. One of his most recognizable images is that of Marilyn Monroe with two fleshy Mickey Mouse heads for breasts, with this show’s incarnation entitled “Marilyn Does Disney.”

His most successful piece, however, and possibly the most successful of the entire show is a painting called “The Hunchback of Public Television.” It is a painting that mimics a Jeff Koons-type sculpture, featuring a golden Teletubbie in 18th-century peasant clothing on its knees and roped down to a wooden pedestal. It resembles an awards statuette, although there is no public television evening-with-the-stars awards show. Suggesting that the Teletubbies are the money shot for today’s public television isn’t revolutionary, but equating and reducing public television to the mentality of big business is something new. Does every children’s show, including those on public television, demand the production of action figures? The line between infomercial and kid’s programming is more than blurry, and public television is not immune to the marketing mentality.

The longevity of Shepard Fairey’s “ObeyGiant” campaign is just as much a testament to the power of advertising and urban legend as it is to the power of iconic imagery. When I was living in Chicago a few years back, I started noticing huge prints of André the Giant’s head on the corner of billboards and the sides of buildings. No one knew where they had come from, or more important, what the hell they meant. This has been part of Fairey’s game plan ever since he started making the stickers a decade ago, plastering them around his own town: what started out as a joke between him and his friends has become an all-out underground urban phenomenon. The ObeyGiant manifesto explains, “Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception to detail.” Ultimately, Fairey’s work reduces and reveals the construct of iconography as simple marketing strategy. And of course his mass-produced prints are available for purchase at the gallery.

Graffiti artists, using covert tactics to dodge the law and gain as much exposure as possible, are inherently guerrilla artists. Richard Colman and DALEK have graffiti roots mixed into their fine arts approach to painting. Their work is presented in the gallery’s alcove, weaving and overlapping their paintings within the space, covering all three walls. While this makes sense in that their cartoon-like painting styles are very similar, some pieces are so much alike that their meshing makes it difficult to distinguish one artist from the other. But Colman’s small drawings provide relief from the salon-style barrage of cartoon robots (DALEK calls his “Space Monkeys”); they depict a middle-aged guy and his relationships with women, death, and his own thoughts. Although these ideas seem strangely weighty for such simple, sketch-like renderings, the very nature of Colman’s work strips away the bullshit and exposes the vulnerability of his everyman character.

The tag line of Playerhaters is “Don’t hate the game — hate the player.” While this catchy phrase has been overused by suburban teens adopting a pseudo-pimp mentality, it seems entirely appropriate for this show. The games of both advertising and art are played by promoting through mass exposure, whether of an individual or a cause or a company. The show recognizes these artists as players themselves, subverting the game yet using the same playing field, asking whether the crime lies more within the subversion or, more compellingly, within the game itself.

Sarah Lidgus (sarahlidgus@hotmail.com) is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.