In his sculptures, paintings, and drawings characterised by exuberant colours and forms, Brian Donnelly—better known as KAWS—presents his 'Companion' figures and appropriated cartoon characters that reflect the cultural trends of our times.Read More
In the early 1990s, KAWS began as a graffiti artist in his hometown of Jersey City before moving to New York, where he graduated with a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 1996. After a stint as a freelance animator for The Walt Disney Company, he returned to the streets to create his own work. This entailed taking commercial posters from such brands as Calvin Klein, Guess, and Marlboro, and painting over the models' faces with what became his trademark cartoon characters—recognisable by their eyes in the form of the letter X and cauliflower-like ears—and reshowing them in public.
KAWS' 'Companion' cartoon characters quickly garnered attention for their witty and approachable design. Their standard attire—consisting of a pair of white gloves and shorts—evokes the beloved Mickey Mouse, reflecting the artist's interest in cartoon characters' cultural value. His 'Companions' have since been made into toys and other products as a result of collaborations with the streetwear brands Bathing Ape and Supreme, and the musician Kanye West, among others.
The artist also has a reputation for his playful appropriation of well-known cartoon characters. In the 2005 acrylic painting series 'Kimpsons', the cast of The Simpsons is replaced with KAWS' 'Companions'; the 2015 silkscreen prints No One's Home and Stay Steady depict Snoopy, rendered in saturated colours with their forms filled in with abstract patterns.
Because of the accessibility of KAWS' work, and his use of bold colours and imagery associated with consumer products, critics have compared it to the Pop sensibilities of creations by Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. The artist himself has stressed the significance of approachability in his practice, as he told The Guardian in 2019: 'In my mind I thought, art's purpose is to communicate and reach people. Whichever outlet that's being done through is the right one.'
KAWS' 'Companions' have appeared in numerous public spaces. In 2013, the ten-metre-tall Small Lie was installed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park alongside other wooden 'Companion' sculptures; Clean Slate, which shows a 'Companion' holding two smaller 'Companions', was displayed in Hong Kong's Harbour City (2014) and Shanghai's Huangpu district (2015). In 2019, a 36.9-metre inflatable 'Companion', titled KAWS: Holiday, adorned the Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong during that year's Art Basel.
Selected solo exhibitions include KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2019); Blackout, Skarstedt, London (2019); KAWS: ALONE AGAIN, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (2019); and WHERE THE END STARTS, Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2017).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2020
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