KAWS (B. 1974)
signed and dated ‘KAWS..16’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
243.8 x 243.8 cm. (96 x 96 in.)
Painted in 2016
Galerie Perrotin, Seoul, South Korea
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016
South Korea, Seoul, Galerie Perrotin, KAWS, June-August 2016.

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Shanshan Wei
Shanshan Wei

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Lot Essay

“What’s abstraction to somebody that knows something? If you look at something but then you know what it is, is it still abstraction? You just start looking at the gestures and how they work and thinking about the history of painting and how it can relate to that.” – KAWS

Painted in 2016 and 2018 respectively, VANQUISHED and METICULOUS are some of the most recent works created by KAWS: one of contemporary art’s most iconoclastic figures, known for transforming icons of popular culture using his signature bold lines and bright colours. His new paintings witness a shift in palette, balancing deep green, burgundy, moss and navy with flashes of neon orange. Though initially abstract in appearance, the present work is nonetheless characterized by the artist’s trademark ‘X’ symbol, skewed and obscured beneath layers of pattern. With a background in design, animation and street graffiti, KAWS has established himself as one of the leading figures within 21st-century pop culture. Although famed for his boundary-pushing collaborations with clothing, toy and design companies – ranging from Dior to Uniqlo and the Campana brothers – painting remains central to his practice.

Recolouring and distorting household names from television series, advertising imagery and more, KAWS deploys self-referential vocabulary with meticulous craftsmanship, paying careful attention to nuances of form, flat colour and line that continues to define his oeuvre. Beyond their important place as pop culture identities, the faces and outlines of cartoon characters carry a particular formal appeal for the artist, who has spoken of his appreciation for their elements of strong, graphic shape. After leaving his job as a background animation painter for Disney in 1997, KAWS took inspiration from the company’s iconic cartoon to create his own signature character with X’s for eyes and gloved hands that he named COMPANION. He first appeared in KAWS’s graffiti works across New York City in the late 1990s, and the artist eventually created his first three-dimensional version. His characters have since taken on a variety of colours, sizes, and poses, leading to the creation of ACCOMPLICE, CHUM and BENDY, who now inhabit their own artistic universe. Offering a closely-cropped view of the ‘X’ with none of his characters in sight, METICULOUS still bear his deep influence from comic and cartoons. Similarly, VANQUISHED represents a powerful development in this strand of his practice. Rendered as a flat white shape criss-crossed with abstracted black lines, the subject floats out like a paper-cut before a fractured background of kaleidoscopic colours. Both paintings testify to KAWS’s origins in graffiti, notably through their sweeping, scribbling strokes, powerful contrasting colours and striking graphic forms.

Drawing upon a wide range of sources – from high art, comic books, graphic design and cartoons – KAWS blurs the boundaries between abstraction and representation. Whilst recognizable characters continue to dominate his oeuvre, in his new paintings they are reduced to a series of abstract geometries, magnified to the point of illegibility. “What’s abstraction to somebody that knows something?” he has said. “If you look at something but then you know what it is, is it still abstraction? You just start looking at the gestures and how they work and thinking about the history of painting and how it can relate to that” (KAWS, quoted in “KAWS On Man's Best Friend at Honor Fraser”, The Hundreds, September 16, 2014). Even as a graffitist, KAWS was fundamentally a studio artist: he would remove posters from the city walls, embellish them at home and return them to their original positions. This way of working allowed him to develop a multi-layered painterly language that ultimately fed into his later canvases.

Despite their impenetrable, immaculate appearance, KAWS’s paintings are the result of extensive manual labour. Starting from his archive of animation frames, the artist selects individual images which he then scans, reworks, crops and combines. The resulting line drawing is then thoroughly annotated with colour selections and projected onto canvas. Using a sponge, he lays down multiple layers of paint – often up to nine or ten – to achieve the desired effect. ‘His paintings do not privilege the artist’s hand’, writes Mónica Ramírez-Montagut; ‘that is, one cannot perceive the process of his labour since the surfaces do not denote the physical commitment to them. We do not see his brush stroke. However, his meticulous craftsmanship stands up extremely well to thorough and close inspection; the canvases navigate between their uncanny meaning and their own material significance’ (M. Ramírez-Montagut, ‘KAWS: Seeing You Seeing Yourself’, in M. Ramírez-Montagut et al, KAWS, New York 2010, p. 130).

Having come a long way from the billboards and subway stations of his youth, today KAWS is regarded as one of the most important painters of his generation: not only for his appropriation of American pop culture, but also for the precision of his craftsmanship. Extending the legacy of artists such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami, the smooth, flat surfaces of KAWS’s paintings hold a mirror up to contemporary culture, simultaneously reflecting and subverting its iconography. He calls into question the foundations of his appeal and cultural permanence, restaging his form as part of a near-Abstract Expressionist explosion of colour and shape. Filtering diverse cultural tropes through his own unique vocabulary, both METICULOUS and VANQUISHED are striking examples that showcase the continued evolution of his practice.

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