KAWS June 27, 2010, to January 2, 2011 The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Brooklyn-based artist and designer Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, has created an astute and prolific body of work. His vast output includes graffiti writings and street art; graphic, industrial and product design, including limited toy editions and streetwear fashion, sketches, drawings, paintings, murals, and sculptures. He is also considered a savvy tastemaker and a sharp businessman,1 with Web-based sales initiated from his site since 2002 and a fashion boutique called OriginalFake, which he opened in 2006 in the Aoyama district of Tokyo. Most recently, he has focused some of his attention on showing the art, paintings, and sculptures he has been making as a daily practice for some time. Born in 1974, KAWS’s first aesthetic influences came from skateboarding when he was in the seventh or eighth grade. As a kid, he remembers becoming acquainted with the urban sights and scenes through this activity: “I grew up skating in Jersey City; there were a lot of good spots. Also in Manhattan, in lower Manhattan—I would take the Path train every weekend to go to the Brooklyn Banks, there was a good spot there and over by Tompkins Square Park. Skateboarding was a way of hanging out with kids that was fun and learning new things to do. I learned a lot about Manhattan through skating, you know . . . 2 And that was the time pretty much I was getting into graffiti.” From skateboarding came his familiarity with the city, but he also began to identify with the visual impressions of the boards and the T-shirts he was using. Their concise signs and symbols had an effect on him, so it is no surprise that in KAWS’s artistic practice the constant use of condensed graphics functions almost 3 like a logo. It is also no surprise that he has designed graphics for Supreme, 4 Krooked, and Real skateboards. As a young adult, KAWS was already curious about graffiti, “I did not know much about writing, I just knew that I liked to write my name everywhere I could in my neighborhood. At that time I knew nothing about the world of graff that was happening in New York. I just knew the few names I saw around my area. Later on, around ’91, I started getting into bombing on a more serious level, trying to cover larger areas of Jersey and Manhattan, especially East Village and 5 SoHo.” By then the artist had become very engaged and after high school he wanted to dedicate more time to making graffiti. During that period he painted walls and freight trains, and his sophisticated typographical designs, using the name-letters “KAWS,” gained him the attention of the public. Like most of these artists, he was not using his real name. The four letters KAWS relate to nothing other than a pleasant-sounding and intriguing visual composition. For KAWS, the ultimate objective of graffiti was to reach out through a common expression—meaning writing—to a broad audience that would understand the simple act of “just putting your name out there.” When he began to study illustration at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan in 1993, KAWS was already targeting billboard advertisements, and he continued to explore new strategies and locations for tagging. His friend Barry McGee, a.k.a. TWIST, presented him with a tool for opening bus shelter adver-
Untitled (KAWS), 1997 Spray paint on cement wall New York
The soft skull with crossed bones and crossed-out eyes became his signature intervention: “I was interested in that image ’cause it was limitless in terms of translation: anywhere, in any country, it’s still a skull. You can’t really get more universal than that. But a skull is usually associated with death, so I tried to 6 make it as friendly and approachable as possible.” Clearly understanding that, in today’s world, meaning circulates visually, from that moment on the “KAWS skull” became not only part of his own vocabulary, but also fully recognizable worldwide as he traveled and placed ads in foreign cities, including Paris and London. By working with the ads, KAWS developed a roster of techniques that are a common dynamic in his diverse output and for which he is now recognized. Taking his inspiration from popular culture, he became proficient in understanding the power of the marketing image and developed a good eye for adding humor and playfulness to charged images, such as the fashion shots. When fashion photographer David Sims met KAWS and was told his work was a target for KAWS’s interventions, he agreed to provide the artist with original prints of his shoots with iconic models such as Kate Moss. Similarly, today KAWS has opportuni-
Untitled (Captain Morgan), 1995 Spray paint on existing billboard advertisement New Jersey
tisement boxes. This allowed KAWS to seize the posters from their kiosks, take them to his studio, carefully and seamlessly integrate his work, and then place them back in the public sphere. He intervened on the posters with an inflated skull with crossed bones and X-ed-out eyes. The skull was sometimes part of a serpentine/spermatozoid looking body that wrapped around the sensual fashion models. KAWS’s particular emphasis on creating a hybrid between the advertising image and his own intervention pushed graffiti to a different level. When intervening on a billboard or an ad, he was careful to not overpower the previous image by intertwining his painted work into the existing composition. This particular blend was unique for being both humorous and daring.
ties to intervene directly on the layouts of other fashion shoots, most recently in French Vogue’s November 2009 issue, where he collaborated with photographer Mario Sorrenti. In 1997 KAWS took his first trip to Japan. The travel came through an exchange he made with the brother of one of his friends from college, who was Japanese. The brother traded a flight and a place to stay for a KAWS oil painting. Once in Tokyo, he got in contact with friends of friends and reached out to Yoshifumi Egawa, a.k.a Yoppi, who ran the apparel label realmadHECTIC. KAWS also met Tomoaki Nagao, a.k.a. Nigo, who founded the renowned *A Bathing Ape®, a.k.a. BAPE, brand and store in 1993; Hikaru Iwanaga from Bounty Hunter; and Shinsuke Takizawa from Neighborhood. All these Japanese designers had several things in common. They all had educated tastes, connoisseurship, and the ability to influence youth culture. They had a close community that would support them by wearing their products, thus keeping the buzz as word of mouth, rather than from a massive marketing campaign; they shared a DIY ethic, and thus were familiar with every aspect of their trade; and also—most importantly—they 7 worked on their own terms. All of this resonated with KAWS. In 1998 KAWS painted the new shop that HECTIC opened in Japan. Based on this new relationship, HECTIC offered to produce KAWS’s first toy edition, fabricated by Bounty Hunter. The toy edition called Companion was released in 1999 and featured a skinny-legged Mickey Mouse body with the new signature KAWS skull. The selection of Mickey Mouse came from looking for the most iconic character in the cartoon world to “take down.” This initiated a whole se-
ries of toy editions that continues today and includes the Chum, the artist’s own version (with KAWS skull) of the famous marketing character the Michelin Man, created by a French artist for the tire company in 1894, and one of the world’s 8 oldest trademarks. For his toy editions, KAWS was tackling assertive marketing characters used to sell products and transforming them into his own characters— awfully cute yet psychologically charged. With the success of his 1999 Companion, in 2002 KAWS launched not only the Chum but also added to his roster the toy edition Accomplice. The Accomplice was not a send-up of a well-known popular icon, but a character KAWS created from scratch. At the time, he was trying to resist the street-tough aura his graffiti interventions had garnered him. This new character was “the one I used to shed off any sort of street cred that I could. Like ‘what can I make that’s really 9 pathetic and really soft?’” The mood the Accomplice portrayed precisely resisted the decisiveness of marketing characters and incorporated a defeated, bittersweet figure, like “a thin Companion in a rabbit outfit.” For The Aldrich’s exhibition, KAWS is presenting the newest version, a sculpture almost eleven feet tall.
Untitled (Maidenform), 2000 Phone booth intervention. Acrylic on existing advertising poster. 50 x 26 New York
New toy characters do not occur easily, yet if a new one comes to mind KAWS will design it only after pondering if this would be a good birth into his existing toy community. For him, all his characters interact with one another. “I feel that 10 each figure I make is in reaction to the existing ones.” Seriality and repetition, with small variations, are part of the creative process that establishes the familial
Untitled (collaboration with David Sims), 2000–01 Acrylic paint on photograph. 16 x 12 inches Collection of the artist
relationships in these toy editions. And he does consider them to be family: “[T]hey talk to me. And it’s really annoying. They all exist in this grim little way. I don’t know if they each have a personality, but the Companion and the Accom11 plice are definitely key . . . people.” The characters relate to one another, yet they also incorporate new features. The Companion, for example, has several permutations; in 2004 KAWS presented a five-years-later version, showing it had gained some weight. And when the visibility of the toys increased, and intrigued aficionados requested more information on the nature of the characters, KAWS humorously revealed the interior of the Companion—but a physical interior, instead of a psychological or emotional one—in a 2006 version for his OriginalFake store that had one half dissected to show its organs. In this sense, KAWS’s works align perfectly with the Pop artists that preceded him, such as Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Keith Haring, and Claes Oldenburg. Deborah Solomon explains that the reason that these artists were praised 12 was because of “refusing to make art about their feelings.” She also argues that Pop art has been described as ironic, impersonal, and emotionally cool. In most of KAWS’s work we find some sort of self-containment or emotional distance. As we are able to understand the situation of the characters, the X-ed eyes prohibit an emotional exchange to give us insight, ensuring that the work maintains its emotional cool.
Companion, 1999 Vinyl. 7 3/4 x 4 x 2 1/4 inches Produced by Bounty Hunter Photo by David Shecter
KAWS looks up to the outdoor sculptures by Claes Oldenburg. Yet to the young 13 artist those sculptures always seemed unreachable and so he decided that plastic was a material that would make artwork more accessible to broader audiences— younger ones too. For KAWS, the toy editions function like mini-sculptures that, being made of plastic, are easier to purchase than a sculpture made of a more expensive material. 14
In 2001, KAWS was invited to have his first solo exhibition in Tokyo. The exhibition included black and white sections of the Chum and a new series of paintings based on his send-ups of The Simpsons, with the identifiable KAWS skull. These Kimpsons paintings were inserted in plastic blister packages like any generic product. In order to produce the packages, KAWS looked to the expertise of his friend Nigo, who soon after the exhibition was the first to commission a series of paintings, all based on The Simpsons. KAWS explains his own fascination with The Simpsons: “I found it weird how infused a cartoon could become in people’s lives; the impact it could have, com15 pared to, like, regular politics.” KAWS’s package paintings became a signature body of work. From the first series of the Kimpsons and later on KAWSBob and Kurfs (his send-ups of SpongeBob SquarePants and the Smurfs), the artist created new types of hybrid artworks that incorporated design/package and art/canvas into a body of work that both served
and criticized contemporary consumer culture. Similar to other artists working with pop imagery and commerce, such as Takashi Murakami, KAWS’s strategy is the “exposure of the ideological consumer apparatus through the exploitation 16 of its mechanism.” Ultimately, KAWS engaged Pop-infused art to portray dystopic Americana with all its exquisite, colorful contradictions. In terms of their format, KAWS was denouncing the current state of art: art as the ultimate commodity and collecting as its speculative strategy. “I did . . . a series of packaged paintings. I had all these friends at the time who were collecting prototype toys and dropping three grand a figure. I was thinking, if I had that money I’d be buying artwork. I’d be buying drawings. But none of them were collecting art . . . I was interested in the idea of product as art. So I did a series of paintings all hand-painted on canvas, and then mass-produced these blister packs to hold them. The back had a die-cut shape that lets you see the stretcher, like the little ‘squeeze me’ hole in the packaging of a toy.” 17
Chum (Red), 2009 Painted fiberglass. Series of 6 unique colors .90 x 54 x 30 inches Courtesy of the artist and Gering & López Gallery, New York
These references to popular culture, art as product, and the meticulous execu18 tion, color, and ideas of KAWS’s work, attracted Nigo to work with him. They collaborated on three collections in 2005 and 2006 for *A Bathing Ape®. This was the first time KAWS had to get invested in the intersection of the patterns, for whom the garments were made, the fabric, the finishing details, and the relevance of the venue. Perhaps it was from Nigo that KAWS also learned the importance of collecting as a source of inspiration, yet what he remembers most about his goal for this collaboration is that he wanted to reach people, “Not just
on the wall, but when they’re sitting on the train or just living with stuff.” He would reach out through apparel products such as the Chompers baseball jacket, the hoodies, and the sneakers. During the period from 2003 to 2005, KAWS painted mainly commissions, for Nigo and the singer/producer Pharrell Williams. Then he decided that he wanted a broader audience to have access to his paintings and met with galleries on the east and west coasts of the United States through friends represented by them. He has since had art exhibitions on both coasts, in 2008 and 2009, and curated some exhibitions of his own.20 For these exhibitions, KAWS focused on larger-scale paintings and ambitious sculpture projects, such as the thirty-three self-portraits in bronze painted in vibrant colors, and the series of large-scale Chums, such as the black version shown for the first time in this Aldrich exhibition. KAWS is somewhat more open to exploring new personalities in his paintings than in his toy edition characters, who are already part of a tight-knit family. In his paintings, he will move from depicting characters like the Simpsons to others such as the Smurfs, and most recently to SpongeBob SquarePants. These transitions are based on a search for visual stimulation. He prefers some characters at a certain moment simply because to him they make more sense visually and culturally.
Untitled (Kimpsons) (Package Painting series), 2000–02 Acrylic on canvas in blister package with printed card Canvas 16 x 16 inches. Package 19 x 23 1⁄2 inches Courtesy of the artist
Visually, KAWS’s impeccably executed works of opaque surfaces—inspired by the texture of animation cel paint—function as a hybrid between the power of the advertising image, that is, the recognition of a cartoon character, and KAWS’s experienced draftsmanship. The flat surface with the careful application of paint to every detail instills the whole canvas with an equal relevance; hence the paint-
Bape Chomper Varsity, 2005 Leather, wool. 27 1/2 x 58 x 1/2 inches Produced by *A Bathing Ape®
ings work well at a distance as well as under close inspection. The distinctive and contrasting color palette, ranging from powerful neons with pale colors to blacks on blacks, contributes to a hallucinatory effect that inhabits the retina long after experiencing the painting. In terms of content, there is a mechanism at play in KAWS’s strategy of painting characters from cartoons. The recognition of a character is an important point of departure in terms of communication: there is something that we can all understand. So, we recognize the cartoon characters yet, with KAWS’s intervention, the meaning becomes somewhat subverted. The Kimpsons do not really mean the same because KAWS intercedes and enhances some identifiable characteristics while denying some other obvious ones. Since we are familiar with these characters (we relate to them from the TV sets in our homes), we in fact feel empowered to ponder the meaning and have an opinion. Thus it is up to us to decide whether these are homages or criticisms. Is it possible that they are both? In 2006, the opportunity came for KAWS to open his own store in partnership with Medicom Toy. The store was a collaboration with interior designer Masamichi Katayama from Wonderwall, who had previously designed BAPE’s stores. The design was based on a concept that permeates KAWS’s whole body of work: duality. The title of the store, OriginalFake, reflects that dual quality and points to what the artist feels best describes what he does: his work is original, yet based on twists, appropriations, and tergiversations of previously created characters. Perhaps KAWS is perceptively pointing to the fact that we live in a fake world 21 (and are part of the society of the spectacle) and that our original creations only contribute to it?
Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket (designed by KAWS), 2010 Vinyl. 10 1/2 x 5 x 5 inches © Disney Produced by Medicom Toy Courtesy of the artist
“Keith Haring, for me, was a pivotal influence, because he was somebody involved in the art world, that wasn’t removed or out of reach. With his ‘Pop Shop’ he made patches and T-shirts and sold them as well as large-scale paintings and sculptures. I thought that it was great there was somebody doing these two things simultaneously. It almost seems like a natural thing these days to be an artist and 23 make products.” For KAWS, OriginalFake meant he could also have a reliable venue and output for constant production. “It let me do things, which without an outlet I 24 couldn’t necessarily do, and now I know there is a place to sell it once it’s made.” With the store, he is able to release something new and different every week, with many of these deliveries being T-shirts: “I treat T-shirts like a sketchbook. I mean, they are finished, definitely, but a lot of it is just me losing my mind in my studio . . .” The store and Web site have provided a solid (economical and independent) plat-
KAWSBOB 3 (installation view), 2007 Acrylic on canvas on wall mural at Emmanuel Perrotin Gallery, Miami Canvas 72 x 96 inches Painting collection of Pharrell Williams
The store underlines this conflict and also KAWS’s awareness of being trapped between two worlds: “I could either make product and be a company, or become a fine artist and make paintings and maybe some 3-D stuff and do the gallery/ 22 museum route.” His store is the coming together of those two seemingly distant worlds; just like Keith Haring, KAWS is becoming successful at that juxtaposition.
form from which KAWS continues his own unconventional and daring take on anything that catches his attention. As he tackles diverse projects that range from graphic, industrial, and product design, streetwear fashion and sketches, prints, paintings, sculptures, and environments, he also maintains a dynamic force that connects them all, regardless of the discipline. Regarding the hierarchies of the different disciplines that his products seemingly pertain to, he explains: “I don’t feel that my paintings are in any way compromised by the fact that there’s a snowboard with some of the same imagery on it. My work intertwines seamlessly from a jacket to a skateboard to a canvas . . . I 25 feel it’s all just one big ball.” And his attitude is a precise symptom of the visual culture of our time. In our current, digitally interconnected world, we see the emergence of such “democratic” leveling of sources of information and disciplines—and a clear disregard of approaching them through established hierarchies. And the blurring of the boundaries between disciplines is another important tendency. Both these phenomena are present in KAWS’s body of work. In the first place, he addresses all projects from different disciplines with the same level of importance, and secondly, in order to make sense of a work from a discipline such as painting, he makes the necessary reference to the body of work pertaining to other disciplines, like product or graphic design, as well as to the media environment and popular culture. Perhaps KAWS’s take on popular culture has political motivation and he is playing up the fact it has a larger impact in shaping our everyday lives and is more democratic than, let’s say, regular politics. Are Homer Simpson and SpongeBob better poised to incorporate and convey the contradictions of our contemporary lifestyle? Do they reflect our culture and its symptoms better than our leaders or our current laws? KAWS’s body of work may well expose the motivation (social,
PERMANENT THIRTY-THREE, 2008 Painted bronze. Series of 33 unique colors. 11 x 6 x 9 1/2 inches each Courtesy of the artist and Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles Photo by Joshua White
economic, and political) for the estimation of these images. Perhaps, as the title of one of his paintings states, they are “gatekeepers” to a new consciousness, one that challenges homogeneity and hegemonic forces. Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, Curator 1 Fast Company special issue, “100 Most Creative People in Business,” 2009. KAWS was number 70 (http://www. fastcompany.com/100/2009/brian-donnelly-KAWS) 2 Unless otherwise noted, all quotations by KAWS are from the author’s interview with the artist on November 20, 2009. 3 Supreme is a brand created by James Jebbia in 1994 that is well known for its street and skater fashion of clothes and accessories for young adults, as well as skateboards by KAWS, and other artists such as Larry Clark, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Nate Lowman, and Damien Hirst. Supreme also produces in small quantities: “It’s not like when we’re making something, we make only six of them. But if we can sell 600, I make 400.” Interview Magazine (http://www.interviewmagazine.com/fashion/james-jebbia-is-supreme) 4 Krooked is co-owned by Mark Gonzales. Born in 1969, Gonzales is known for pioneering street skateboarding. 5 Email interview for Art Crimes, edited by Brett Webb. Interview © 1996 Brett Webb. 6 Pop magazine, UK, Spring/Summer, February 2007, Issue 15. Interview, p. 262. 7 Jun Takahashi (Jonio) and Nigo used to write a fashion column together in the magazine Takarajima and had a store called Nowhere. “Initially he [Nigo] only ever sold five T-shirts through Nowhere [a store he opened with Jonio] but had the savvy to give away an extra twenty-five to his best buds and other tastemakers in and around the Japanese scene and straight up they became a synonymous culture badge of cool,” explains Ben Reardon in the introduction to KAWS’s interview with Nigo for i-D magazine: The Stepping Stone Issue, p. 71. 8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelin, November 23, 2009. 9 ANP Quarterly, p. 47. 10 Super7 magazine, Issue 14, 2006, p. 17. 11 i-D, p. 81. 12 The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, December 13, 2009, p. 12. 13 ANP Quarterly, p. 46. 14 Tokyo First, Parco Gallery, Tokyo, 2001. 15 Pop magazine, p. 264. 16 Amanda Cruz, “DOB in the Land of Otaku,” Takashi Murakami: The Meaning of the Nonsense of the Meaning (Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College, 1999), p. 15. 17 Pop magazine, p. 264. 18 i-D magazine, p.74. KAWS interviews Nigo and the latter explains, “What I like about your work are meticulous details, your colors and ideas, like the Simpsons-based pictures I found really interesting. Those references mean a lot but also the way that, technically they look so neat. I love the execution. It is always meticulous, which matches my sensibility.” 19 Pop magazine, p. 265. 20 Emmanuel Perrotin, Miami, and Sandra Gering, New York, 2009; Honor Fraser, Los Angeles, 2009. I Can’t Feel My Face curated by KAWS for Royal/T, Los Angeles, 2009. 21 Guy Debord, La Sociedad del Espectáculo (1967; reprint Valencia: Pre-textos, 1999). 22 Pop magazine, p. 265. Quote updated by KAWS on January 5, 2010. 23 i-D, p. 73. 24 i-D, p. 81. 25 Pop magazine, p. 265.
OriginalFake Store, 2006 Boutique created in 2006 by the collaborative effort of Medicom Toy and KAWS Aoyoma district, Tokyo Photo by PM KEN
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The Long Way Home, 2009 Acrylic on canvas. 84 x 96 inches Collection of Mark Parker Photo by Joshua White
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