FOR young people, the name KAWS may sound alien, but they might not be unfamiliar with the imagery that KAWS has created.
Brian Donnelly, popularly known as KAWS, is one of the most influential artists of his generation and a pop culture sensation over the last two decades. KAWS has built a career by straddling graffiti, design and art with imagery. It took shape on the streets but later evolved into merchandise.
The “WHERE THE END STARTS” exhibition at the Yuz Museum explores the breadth of KAWS’s career with nearly 100 items from street interventions in the 1990s, to toys and apparels, figurative paintings, to the recent and more abstract canvases and sculpture.
Seeing these works together, visitors get to see KAWS’s formal agility as an artist, as well as his underlying wit, irreverence, and affection of our times.
Born in 1974 in the United States, the artist went to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, where he studied illustration. There he created academic works to satisfy school assignments and superimposed his marks onto existing advertisements by night. It was during his first visit to Tokyo in 1997, the artist was struck by the way cartoon characters cut through language barriers and cultural differences. This revelation compelled him to delve deeper into such imagery.
“It was difficult to communicate since I didn’t speak Japanese, but I could walk down the streets and see shops full of Simpsons merchandises. It was like, “You know Homer, I know Homer.” We might not be able to have a meaningful conversation, but to all of us, it’s still Homer,” he said.
Then he continued to transform well-known cartoon personages into figures with double X’s and skulls and crossbones.
Today, KAWS is best known for his cast of characters with X’s for eyes and bulbous skulls and crossbones for heads that convey universally understood aspects of human nature. Executed in a clean, graphic and energetic style, his work is instantly recognizable.
Though KAWS has invented many characters, the three figures that are most iconic in his career are “companion,” inspired by Mickey Mouse, “Chum,” a derivative of the Michelin Man, “Accomplice,” a bunny with long ears.
The three sculptures are all showcased at the exhibition.
“Chum” was a primary vehicle used by KAWS to move through graffiti into painting and is seen in two and three-dimensional iterations throughout the exhibition.
“Companion” became another design basis for his first vinyl toys and is arguably KAWS’s most recognized figure. For the artist, the toys were a form of sculpture — the first three dimensional works he could afford to create. Meticulously designed and crafted, they were eventually realized on a monumental scale, made of fiberglass, aluminum, bronze, or, as seen in the exhibition hall, wood. From toys to sculpture, KAWS has leveled visual hierarchies, questioning the imposed divides between high and low art.
This exhibition also displays some of his acrylic paintings on canvas. Early in 2001, he created his first acrylic paintings on canvas that featured his characters “The Kimpsons,” based on The Simpsons.
Rather than hanging these works conventionally, KAWS presented them in blister packs. This series represents a critical milestone in his career as it bridges commercial and fine art — merging the incongruent materials associated with the different visual worlds he was traversing.
Over time KAWS took his work out of the packaging and diversified his palette, portraying Kimpsons, Kurfs, Kawsbob, and others in pastels, monochromes and fluorescents. He eventually began to deconstruct his characters into forms that draw on the tradition of abstract painting, with the hard-edge lines and saturated colors.