“SMALL LIE adopts the position of a child caught out telling a fib, knowing it has done wrong, with head down in embarrassment and knees knocked in a protective, humbled, position. The material of its making and long nose deliberately evoke the fairytale of Pinocchio, told to a children as a thinly veiled warning about the consequences of lying.” - Helen Pheby, ‘Making His Mark’, KAWS Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield 2016, p. 15
One of the most iconic artists of his time, KAWS has created a rich, multi-media universe that seamlessly traverses the boundary between art and popular culture. Spanning sculpture, painting and screen prints, as well as numerous collaborations with toy, fashion and furniture designers, his creations are recognised across the world for their wit, bold visual language and technical prowess. KAWS came to prominence at the turn of the millennium, having started life as a graffiti artist in New York during the 1990s. He brought with him an army of characters defined by their X-d out eyes and skull-andcrossbones heads, whose mixture of pathos, humour and defiance would come to be synonymous with his practice. Extending the legacy of artists such as Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Keith Haring, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, KAWS poses important questions about the nature and purpose of art, asking where – and for whom – it truly exists. His creations, in turn, have defined a generation: as the critic Michael Auping has written, ‘KAWS is not just referring to pop culture, he is making it’ (M. Auping, ‘America’s Cartoon Mind’, in KAWS: Where the End Starts, exh. cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, 2017, p. 63).
Born Brian Donnelly in New Jersey in 1974, KAWS developed his distinctive moniker as a teenager, tagging the name on a roof outside his high school where it was visible to fellow students. ‘When your whole art is based on the lettering you choose, you kinda figure out what ones work together’, he would later explain. ‘I just liked the shapes of the k, a, w, s’ (B. Donnelly, quoted at http://www.artnet.com/artists/kaws/ [accessed 6 May 2020]). He subsequently attended the School of Visual Arts in New York, graduating in 1996, before working briefly as a background painter on animated cartoons including 101 Dalmatians, Doug and Daria. During this period, his graffiti practice took off in earnest: unlike many of his peers, he would remove posters from city walls, subways and bus shelters and draw over them at home, before returning them the next day. Some of his earliest characters came to life through this practice, known as 'interventions'. Gradually, it brought him to the attention of the art world, the public and major brands, taking him to cities including Paris, London, Berlin and Tokyo.
In 1999, KAWS shot to fame with the limited edition vinyl toy COMPANION, produced in collaboration with the Japanese clothing brand Bounty Hunter. It was the first time one of his images had come to life in three dimensions, and was an instant sell-out success. With his gloved hands and forlorn, deeply human posture, COMPANION went on to become one of his most recognisable creations, touring the world as a monumental sculpture, gracing the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as a 40-foot-long balloon and occupying Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong as a gigantic floating inflatable in 2019. Standing over two metres tall, SMALL LIE (2013) relates to a gigantic version of COMPANION that appeared at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2016: KAWS’ first exhibition at a UK institution. Made of Afromosia wood, he is characterised by a slumped stance, bent knees and Pinocchio-like nose, his face downcast in sorrow. Over the years, KAWS would forge other beings in this manner, often appropriating well-known cartoons and endowing them with his trademark features. CHUM (Pink) (2009) exemplifies another of his well-known creations, his body reminiscent of familiar cartoon icons. By marking these cheerful characters with skulls and crosses, KAWS rescues them from the world of fictional happy endings, re-casting them as flawed, emotionally-complex beings.
Alongside his sculptural practice, KAWS is also celebrated as a painter. MISSING (2017) is a large-scale example of his kaleidoscopic ‘tondo’ paintings, offering a closely-cropped view of an unidentifiable cartoon face. Updating the traditional associations of the format, which came to prominence during the Renaissance, these circular canvases confront the viewer like blown-up collectible lapel buttons, their subjects reduced to a series of abstract geometries. NO GUARANTEES (2012) depicts a neon pink figure jetting off from the ground with arms and legs thrust backward. He is captured the moment after lift-off, suspended amidst floating geometric shapes. Through the careful placement of shapes and colours, KAWS is able to freeze his subject, trapping its kinetic energy and imbuing the work with a sense of frenetic mobility.
Scanning, cropping and reworking pre-existing imagery, KAWS produces a line drawing which he annotates with colour selections and projects onto canvas. Using a sponge, he lays down multiple layers of paint – often up to nine or ten – to achieve a glossy, impenetrable surface. ‘His paintings do not privilege the artist’s hand’, writes Mónica Ramírez-Montagut; ‘… 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). The results bear witness to his fascination with the obfuscating abstract visions of Gerhard Richter, asking the viewer to search for recognisable signs of life within a maelstrom of colour and form.
Throughout his practice, KAWS has repeatedly challenged the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, championing traditional, labour-intensive methods in the same breath as viral collaborations. After launching his own fashion label OriginalFake in the early 2000s, he went on to work with brands including Supreme and Uniqlo, as well as developing his own pair of Nike Air Jordans. In 2019, he collaborated with Dior designer Kim Jones to create a 33-foot high sculpture of his character ‘BFF’, which featured in the brand’s men’s summer show and subsequent advertising campaign. He has designed guitar picks with John Mayer and album covers for musicians such as Kanye West, as well as creating the bottle artwork for the scent ‘Girl’ by Comme des Garçons and Pharrell Williams. Elsewhere, his characters have sprung to life as furniture in collaborations with the Campana brothers. At the same time, his work remains plugged into the currents of the fine art world, with the Museum of Modern Art in New York releasing a further limited edition run of his COMPANION toy in 2017, and a major survey of his work planned at the Brooklyn Museum for 2021. In his endless navigation between the two realms, KAWS continues to push the boundaries of art- making in the twentyfirst century, redefining its parameters for a new era.