KAWS (B. 1974)
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
KAWS (B. 1974)

COMPANION (Brown)

Details
KAWS (B. 1974)
COMPANION (Brown)
left: stamped '©KAWS..07' (on the underside of the left foot); stamped 'MEDICOM TOY 2007 MADE IN CHINA' (on the underside of the right foot)
right: stamped ‘MEDICOM TOY 2009 MADE IN CHINA (on the underside of the left foot); stamped '©KAWS..09' (on the underside of the right foot)
a set of two fiber-reinforced plastic sculptures with the original box
each: 125 (H) x 50 x 33 cm. (49 1/4 x 19 5/8 x 13 in.) (2)
Executed in 2007; & 2009
edition of 100; & 100
Provenance
MEDICOM TOY, Tokyo, Japan
Private Collection, Asia
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

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Lot Essay

"GROWING UP, A LOT OF THE WAY I GOT TO SEE ART AND LEARN ABOUT THINGS HAPPENING OUTSIDE OF JERSEY CITY WAS THROUGH MAGAZINES AND STICKERS AND GRAPHICS AND STUFF. SO NOW, WHEN I'M MAKING WORK, I'M ALWAYS THINKING HOW CAN I COMMUNICATE WITHIN THESE AVENUES TO MAKE THOSE BRIDGES FOR KIDS AND PULL THEM OUT OF THEIR HOLES INTO OTHER WORLDS?"

KAWS has gained international notoriety as an enfant terrible of the contemporary art world. During Art Basel week in Hong Kong, he exhibited a giant inflatable sculpture in Victoria Harbour, while a solo exhibition of his work organized by the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation drew in massive crowds and led to tickets selling out days in advance. His resume of brand collaborations is impressive, including names like Dior, Uniqlo, Nike, Supreme and A Bathing Ape among them. In May 2017, when the MoMA Design Store announced that it would release a limited supply of open-edition Companion figures, online traffic caused the store’s website to crash for an entire day. KAWS is a name associated with mania, and mania on a global scale.

The artist behind KAWS is Brian Donnelly, a Jersey-born, Brooklyn-based American artist who got his start working in animation and illustration by day and creating graffiti by night. Working under a pseudonym, KAWS taps into a global culture that is increasingly defined by its interconnectivity and saturation. The media that is consumed all over the world is increasingly similar, and cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons and SpongeBob are images instantly recognizable to almost everyone on the planet. Just as Andy Warhol took famous images of all-American icons Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup and elevated them into art, KAWS draws upon global icons to create his controversial artwork. “He doesn’t understand the hierarchy of images set forth by the art world — why one thing is considered art and one thing is considered trash,” says Andrea Karns, curator of KAWS’ solo show at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. “What he’s always tried to do, starting with graffiti, is question that hierarchy, or make us as viewers question it.”

Companion, widely considered KAWS’s most recognizable figure, was also one of his earliest creations. The skull-and-crossbones head appears in some of Donnelly’s earliest graffiti art, which consisted of skull-headed figures painted over advertisements on the streets of New York. The body of Companion is entirely that of Mickey Mouse, and then of course there are the X-ed out eyes that have become KAWS’ trademark and is the signature element that appears in all Donnelly’s work.

KAWS attributes his interest in editioned works to the Pop artists, Warhol, Lichtenstein and Oldenburg, and editioned works they would make with Gemini G.E.L., a famous artists workshop and publisher of limited-edition prints and sculptures based in LA. In 1997, when Donnelly first went to Japan, he was given an opportunity to make a limited-edition toy with the cult Japanese toy company Bounty Hunter. “Before that, my idea of a toy was, like, Kenner or Hasbro,” Donnelly said in an interview, “But they were making small runs of 500 toys. As soon as I saw them, I thought, These are like those Gemini editions. It’s just that people’s perception of a toy is different.”

In 1999, KAWS released the first Companion figures – his first toys – with Bounty Hunter. The figurines came in 3 different colourways, an edition of 500 in each colour. Those original colourways – brown, grey and black – are still the colours most closely associated with Companion. Donnelly has never spoken directly about the exact meanings or connotation behind Companion’s distinctive design, but he does comment on the effect he hopes his work has. “He’s approachable,” KAWS said about his Companion figures. “When I created him, I wanted him to have human sensibility.”

Toys and cartoons are associated with childhood innocence, but KAWS’ work is tinged with a hint of something darker. The X-ed out eyes and skulls – while cute – traditionally signified death, while the dissected bodies of the flayed Companions are both gruesome yet playful in their bright hues. Reminiscent of anatomical models from a high school biology-classroom, they show us the detailed insides of a cartoon figure widely perceived as shallowly two-dimensional.

And perhaps that is exactly where the appeal of KAWS lies. His works appear appealingly simple with their bright colours and borrowed cartoon figures, but the plastic exterior hides a deeper, more nuanced complexity. KAWS uses beloved childhood mascots to probe our emotional associations with these made-up characters, and subverts them, adding a sheen of street-art cool and skate-culture branding to enhance their commercial appeal. Just as the flayed Companions show us what might lie underneath Mickey Mouse’s cute exterior, KAWS reveals the obsessions that underlie the things we recognize and want. And whether you speak about his work with passion or derision, his work demands to be spoken about. Perhaps Andy Warhol – father of Pop Art - put it best, “I see art in everything. Your shoes. That car. This coffee cup. It's art if you see it as art.”

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