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Art Crush:

September 20, 2011

KAWS and Effect

Street artist-turned-mega-Pop-master KAWS brings his color- and- cartoon-saturated works to the High Museum Now

By Nancy Staab

The HIgh Museum hosts a major exhibit of KAWS work through May 27, 2012,  including a giant sculpture of a slightly sinister, reworked Mickey Mouse for the museum’s Sifly Piazza. Here’s a brief look at this wily artist, whose seductive and playful surfaces often belie more subversive undertones.

Pay the Debt to Nature by KAWS from the upcoming exhibition at the High Museum, courtesy of the artist Pay the Debt to Nature by KAWS from the upcoming exhibition at the High Museum, courtesy of the artist

Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly, a.k.a KAWS, first made a name for himself as a graffiti artist in the 1990s with his cheeky over-paintings of glossy ads in New Jersey and New York City bus shelters and phone booths. His guerilla reworking of ads with his signature cross-and-bones motif soon made him famous and his ephemeral bus shelter ads became covetable pieces of work—not only in New York City but also Berlin, Paris, London and Tokyo. Galleries came calling and in a twist of irony, some of the very adverised brands that had been defiled by him, later developed official ad campaigns with the rising artist. KAWS draws parallels between the way in which advertising takes over public spaces and walls, versus graffiti. He’s also masterfully limned the line between fine and mass art: rolling out t-shirt designs; collaborations with hip fashion vendors like Bathing Ape, Vans, Nike, Commes des Garcons and snowboard producer Burton; and a super-collectible line of vinyl toys for OriginalFake that were all the rage in Japan as part of what curator Michael Rooks terms his "mini eco-system." He’s even done album art for Kanye West and designed glossy magazine covers. KAWS has two assistants as well as a satellite shop and painter in Tokyo but emphasizes that all his works are hand-made, not computer or factory generated, and though his sculptures might be constructed of fiberglass or bronze, he produces them to look like plastic, which he professes to love. What he hates most, he says, is any barriers between mass and fine art-- throwing out the following questions: "Is it serious or playful art, toy or sculpture, bronze or plastic?" Clearly KAWS enjoys liming these lines. He also relishes his collaborations with commercial companies for products like watches, skateboards and shoes, etc. "I don't want to take 12 years to learn how to make a bicycle, but I love to jump in and collaborate on one. It's a moment in time. I haven't made a Schwinn yet, but I would like to."

The artists KAWS in front of one of his works, courtesy of the artist The artists KAWS in front of one of his works, courtesy of the artist

The 38-year-old KAWS is also known for super flat, colorful, intricate and cartoonish acrylic paintings with immaculate surfaces in the vein of Takashi Murakami or Keith Haring and perfect, pop-influenced pieces of monumental sculpture a la Jeff Koons. Among his subjects have been universal, global icons like Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio (echoes of his brief stint as a Disney animator), The Simpsons, The Michelin Man, and SpongeBob and SquarePants. It is hard to discern the line between innocent play and joie de vivre and, yet, also clear currents of tragi-comedy and darkness in his works, including the comic existentialism of one of his idols artist H.C. Westermann and, later, animator Robert Crumb. KAWS is very much the sad clown of the art world. You can’t help but take his serious attention to facile cartoon characters as, at the least, a partial indictment of our pop-saturated culture—that this is the universal language that binds us. Nevertheless one can’t help but also find joy in his colorful, intricate, carefully woven canvases and super smooth sculpture which KAWS says he intentionally crafts " to look like plastic." The Mickey Mouse sculpture, entitled Companion (2010), that is coming to the High Museum seems playful but is posed in heavy thought (or is it shame? Eyes covered with hands) like a cartoon version of Rodin’s Thinker, while in place of cute mouse eyes are the deathly X’s of a skull. Indeed, you would be suprised at what artists KAWS might reference. During a media tour at the High Museum he confessed that he studied traditional painting and art history in college and grooved on 18th-century French painters Fragonard and Boucherer--they of the fleshly, feminine, and painterly boudoir paintings! Maybe that's where KAWS gets his penchant for pinks. He also dropped a reference to John Singer Sargent. 

The Companion Sculpture (2010) that will be installed in the High MuseumPiazza on Nov. 18 The Companion Sculpture (2010) that will be installed in the High MuseumPiazza on Nov. 18

The High Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, Michael Rooks, sums it up best—stating that KAWS’ work is as if the best of New York abstract art was put through the blender of the Cartoon Network:

“From their saturated palettes and seductive surfaces to their complex spatial geometries, KAWS’s paintings have a formal elasticity that is humorous and playful as well as complex, sophisticated and discursive…. His work is uncannily familiar but foreign at the same time, like in a dream, and it unites the often distant worlds of fine art and youth culture.”  -Michael Rooks


Of the "Gone and Beyond" series of acrylic tondo paintings, meant to be read serially, KAWS says that he was inspired by the many "buttons of communication" in 21st-century life and how much information migh be contained in a single button. He says the tondos also "allowed for more experimentation and sampling of colors and compositions," and hence, are "more visceral" as they zoom in and out between the literal and more abstract, toggling between comedy, fear and apprehension. 

You can check out this uncanny artist for yourself when the statue goes up Nov. 18, then return early Feb. to see the artist work on a 22-foot site-specific mural for the High. The official exhibit “KAWS: Down Time” opens Feb. 18, 2012, with the mural, the sculpture, a 24-ft triptych and a gallery of painting, sculptures and drawings on exhibit Feb. 18-May 27. In addition, KAWS and Michael Rooks will partake in a conversation at the Alliance Theatre at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 16, as part of the High’s “Conversations with Contemporary Artists” lecture series. 

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