KAWS has established himself as one of the leading purveyors of a new iteration of the Pop sensibility in the 21st century, and Chum (KCB7) is a testament to the artist’s striking visual vocabulary and adept handling of appropriated styles and imagery. Combining his own characters with popular cartoons, logos, and mascots, KAWS builds upon a legacy of artists who questioned the consumerist tendencies of modern society. His career has built upon those initial ideas championed by early Pop artists. The artist admits that he looks to, “the pop artists like [Claes] Oldenburg and [Tom] Wesselmann. Then there were artists like [Takashi] Murakami, who really opened up a lot of doors on acceptance and crossover projects. That made what I was doing a bit easier to translate. And definitely Jeff Koons. I love his work. I appreciate his perfectionist mentality. It’s so over the top” (B. Donnelly, quoted in T. Maguire, “KAWS,” Interview, April 27, 2010). Especially inspiring is KAWS’s ability to transcend the art world and push into the consumer culture sphere. His indebtedness to artists like Murakami and projects like Keith Haring’s Pop Shop (which was mimicked in form in KAWS’s own boutique shop/line OriginalFake) is clear, but the artist holds his own by imbuing his work with the aesthetic of street art and the meticulous eye of high design.
Striding toward the viewer out of the wall, Chum (KCB7) is a boldy-colored canvas that immediately attracts attention. With smooth, uniform planes of red, yellow, orange, blue, and purple, KAWS fills in his character like an absurd coloring book. Bordered in a bright lime green, the shaped canvas helps to push the work out of the space and into the realm of the audience. Not anchored by a rectilinear composition, Chum (KCB7) is full of potential energy and movement. This confrontational manner is typical of KAWS’s oeuvre, and speaks to his ability to charge his work with a sense of significance. A multi-colored amalgam of KAWS’s signature ‘Companion’ character and what appears to be the body of the jovial Michelin man, Chum (KCB7) continues the artist’s appropriation of figures from advertisements and popular culture. With the instantly recognizable X-ed out eyes, the Companion takes on many forms in KAWS’s work, and is often seen fused with other characters or adorning items of clothing. SpongeBob SquarePants, Snoopy, and the Simpsons are among the iconic cartoons that have been co-opted. The artist spoke about his appropriation of popular characters, saying, “Icons like Mickey, the Simpsons, the Michelin Man and SpongeBob exist in a universal way that you forget their origin or even there [sic] narrative, and you just recognize them from the slightest glimpse of their image or sound” (B. Donnelly, quoted in conversation with K. Donoghue, Whitewall, December 2012). By working with extant images with which the audience already has some familiarity, KAWS is able to subvert their intended meaning and make a pointed commentary on consumer culture.
Born Brian Donnelly, KAWS is a Brooklyn-based artist and designer who started doing street art in the 1990s. When asked about his moniker, the artist replied, “There’s no meaning to it. It’s just letters that I liked—K-A-W-S. I felt like they always work and function nicely with each other” (B. Donnelly, quoted in T. Maguire, op. cit.). This flippant interest in juxtaposing disparate elements to make something for personal enjoyment can be seen echoed in his early work under the necessary anonymity of street art. Pilfering signs from New York bus stops which he then altered with his distinct visual iconography and returned, the artist quickly made a name for himself thanks to his clear, readable style and his subversive take on commercial culture. Employing a type of detournement that relies on a viewer’s familiarity with consumer and advertising culture, KAWS is able to reframe the everyday and incite a deeper reading of one’s surroundings. This savvy attention to branding and rebranding has since come full circle as the artist has been hired by some of the same companies he originally defaced. For example, his initial 1995 alteration of the Snoopy and Woodstock characters on a MetLife billboard lead to multiple collaborations with the Peanuts brand and even crossover collaborations with Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo, among others. The artist operates in an interstitial space between the art world and the realm of fashion, advertisement, and toys. Creating limited edition figurines and lending his designs to clothing manufacturers while also showing works like Chum (KCB7) at galleries and museums around the world, KAWS has established himself as a multilayered artist and creative entrepreneur in the vein of Murakami and Warhol.
Transitioning from near-anonymous street art to gallery exhibitions and branded apparel, KAWS has established an upward trajectory that has a complex relationship to his origins and the critique of popular culture. While simultaneously investigating the effects of advertisements and consumerism on society at large, the artist makes nods to those that came before like Warhol, Koons, and other Pop Art stalwarts. Like them, KAWS makes work that is aware of its position within media culture and its perceived complicity. Employing images that are intertwined with many people’s lives (whether they are being used to sell something or as entertainment), the artist is able to establish a familiar entry point with his audience. “[I] found it weird how infused a cartoon could become in people’s lives; the impact it could have, compared to regular politics” (B. Donnelly, “Graffiti Artist Turned Gallery Artist Turned Art Toy Maker, KAWS” Pop, February 2007, pp. 260-265). Creating an extensive commentary on the role of entertainment in everyday life and capitalist culture at large, KAWS investigates the ways popular media influences and integrates into our personal narratives.