Generation XX: How Kaws Short-Circuited the Art World
Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS, short-circuited the fine-art galleries and auction houses when his playful paintings and cartoon-inspired cast of recurring characters (known by their signature ‘XX’ eyes) led to record-breaking sales. Now his outsize success may forever alter the perceived legitimacy of artists who came up honing their skills on the streets.
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I'm slaloming a mess of titans. To be more precise, I'm standing inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in the final moments before Alone Again, a new exhibition by the artist KAWS, opens for a crowd of VIPs.
Every which way I turn, I find myself unwittingly confronted by a tweaked-out member of KAWS's odd mob of massive carved wooden sculptures. The most common presence is the artist's iconic character Companion. (Imagine a Mickey Mouse-adjacent creature with a skull-like face, cauliflower-esque four-chambered ears, and KAWS's signature “XX” eyes.) And yet, despite their alien nature, the sculptures each exude familiar emotions.
Take SMALL LIE, for example: The eight-foot figure stands slump-shouldered, knees knocked, eyes glued to the ground. There's incredible pathos. Or AT THIS TIME, wherein Companion stands almost nine feet tall, back arched with hands cupped over eyes, conveying a kind of muted shock and disbelief. Not far away is FINAL DAYS, in which Companion is on the move, stepping one foot in front of the other, arms outstretched, doing a low-key Frankenstein strut. Given the fact that all the pieces are taller than me, the overall effect of standing amid the bizarre cluster is that of being fully submerged within a twisted Venn diagram of awkward human feelings.
Running along the back of the room is a 62-foot-long, 12-foot-high site-specific wall painting that fills the cavernous space with brightly vibrating energy. It is adorned with a trio of 6-foot-high-by-10-foot-long canvases. Each one is a teeming tangle of abstracted tentacle-like shapes over a background more reminiscent of the artist's earlier cartoon-inspired geometric planes. The synergy of all three elements comes together to elicit a sensation of being both transported and slightly held against my will in a kind of psychedelic Land of the Lost.
“Clearly there are elements of color field. There's amazing line work. And, of course, abstraction,” says MOCAD executive director and chief curator Elysia Borowy-Reeder, walking alongside me. “These paintings are really monumental.”
And this is a monumental show for MOCAD as well, at a moment when the appetite for KAWS worldwide is nothing short of rabid. To list just a few notable recent KAWS headlines: There was his 121-foot-long inflatable sculpture that floated in Victoria Harbour during Art Basel Hong Kong in March; a 33-foot-tall version of his newest character, BFF, made out of pink flowers, as the centerpiece of Dior's show at Paris Fashion Week; a line of clothing for Uniqlo that sparked Black Friday-style chaos and actual violence; and a record-setting $14.7 million auction of THE KAWS ALBUM—a 40-inch-by-40-inch painting, and homage within an homage, that uses the artist's “Kimpsons” motif to reimagine a Simpsons version of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover. Any of these might have been a crowning achievement to an artist's career. For KAWS, it just amounts to what he did this past year.
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