KAWS (B. 1974)
signed and dated 'KAWS..10' (on the reverse of each canvas)
triptych—acrylic on canvas
left: 60 x 50 in. (152.4 x 127 cm.)
center: 60 x 36 in. (152.4 x 91.4 cm.)
right: 60 x 50 in. (152.4 x 127 cm.)
overall: 60 x 136 in. (152.4 x 345.4 cm.)
Painted in 2010.
Galerie Perrotin, Paris
Private collection, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Paris, Galerie Perrotin, KAWS: PAY THE DEBT TO NATURE, November-December 2010.

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Kathryn Widing Vice President, Senior Specialist, Head of the 21st Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

"[W]e recognize the cartoon characters yet, with KAWS’s intervention, the meaning becomes somewhat subverted…Since we are familiar with these characters…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." (Mónica Ramírez-Montagut, KAWS, exh. brochure, The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, 2010, online).
One of the most brazen contemporary artists working today, KAWS is regarded globally for his distinctive cartoon-inspired paintings and sculptures. Shocking the senses with vivid neon’s and highly familiar iconography, these paintings are prized for their cultural significance and critical commentary on consumerism, globalization, and the commercialization of art. The artist’s use of cartoon creates a sense of childlike innocence that belies the deeper themes that KAWS explores in his art. Through his work, KAWS challenges traditional notions of high art and popular culture, creating a bridge between the two and inviting viewers to reconsider their assumptions about what constitutes "real" art.
KAWS’s 2010 painting POKE depicts the well-known character SpongeBob SquarePants in a triptych format, subverting the recognizable subject from pop culture as it becomes a fragmented, abstract version of itself. The disjointing of the character’s features adds to the sense of chaos and anxiety this work portrays. The fusion of each different facial feature on the three separate canvases comes together to generate an overwhelming feeling of madness and unease, further emphasized by the close-up crop of the work which creates a claustrophobic atmosphere. KAWS has a unique ability to convey complex human emotions and anxieties through cartoon imagery, explaining “even though I use a comic language, my figures are not always reflecting the idealistic cartoon view that I grew up on, where everything has a happy ending” (KAWS, quoted in KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 5). This skill is what makes him one of the most prominent contemporary artists, bridging the gap between high art and popular culture.
KAWS began his artistic career in the streets of New Jersey, painting graffiti on trains, billboards, walls, and any surface he could find. By the 1990s, the now experienced street artist had begun interfering with popular advertisements, breaking into encasements at bus stops and phonebooths and adding his own modifications to ads featuring cartoon characters such as Snoopy and Woodstock. This foray into disruption, particularly with characters of popular cultural significance, would prove incredibly impactful for KAWS, who found in this new mode, a means of communicating his ideas via easily consumable and digestible figures in the public eye. These early street artworks became a critique on consumerism and the culture of corporate mass production marketed through kitschy and comforting characters, a critique KAWS would then turn on its head as he transitioned into the appropriative canvases that now make up such a central role in his body of work. These paintings of so-called ‘KAWSBOBS’, ‘KURFS’, and ‘KIMPSONS’ take hyper-commodified cartoon characters and reappropriate them to KAWS’s whims, the artist often imparting human emotion, anxieties, and frustrations onto their vibrantly colorful surfaces. A continuation on the resounding legacy of Pop Art, POKE, as well as KAWS’s larger body of cartoon appropriations, infiltrates consumerist society at its core, allowing the artist’s ideas to permeate throughout the fabric of pop culture.

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