‘KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it’
BENDING THE TRUTH (2009), an unmistakable example of KAWS’s subversive approach to American popular culture, transforms a close-cropped image of a cartoon character into a monumental, arresting composition. Rendered in flat tones of pinkish red, he is at once instantly recognisable and eerily unfamiliar; blown up to almost two metres in height, the simple, expressive shapes of his features appear almost abstract. The painting reconciles KAWS’s stylistic and conceptual influences – which include artists such as Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons and Claes Oldenburg – with his beginnings as a graffiti artist in and around his hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey in the 1990s, when he achieved notoriety for painting his now-beloved ‘COMPANION’ faces on bus shelter fashion advertisements. Editing these ads and roping them into his artistic world, the then-mysterious street artist became known as an irreverent commentator on the nature of mass consumption and the American fascination with celebrity and celebrities, both real and fictional. BENDING THE TRUTH represents a powerful development of this strand of his practice. The typically jovial subject is depicted in a state of apparent fear or worry, and the painting’s magnified focus and unexpected framing work to distil him to a series of connected shapes, stripping away his famous happy-go-lucky persona in the process. Destabilising the character’s essential elements, KAWS calls into question the foundations of his appeal and cultural permanence.
Although he is famed for his boundary-pushing collaborations with clothing, toy and design companies, KAWS’s painting remains centrally important to his practice. Recolouring and distorting household names from television series, advertising imagery and more, he deploys his self-referential vocabulary with meticulous craftsmanship, paying careful attention to the nuances of flat colour and line. Beyond their important place as pop culture identities, the faces of cartoon characters carry a particular formal appeal for the artist, who has spoken of his appreciation for their elements of strong, graphic shape. Where a common first reaction to abstraction is an attempt at parsing some concrete imagery, paintings like BENDING THE TRUTH do the opposite, urging viewers to find abstraction in an icon they’ve known for years. Reimagined on a heroic scale and plunged into red twilight, the cartoon character becomes an unlikely figure of looming existential doubt, forcing us to look anew at the world of visual media that we take for granted.