The iconic character of Snow White has captivated the hearts of generations, renowned for the beauty, purity, and innocence that her name suggests. In 1937, Disney chose the original, nineteenth-century fairytale written by the Grimm Brothers as the first that it would transform into a feature-length animated film. Reclaimed in the twenty-first century by the Brooklyn-based artist KAWS, Snow White’s innocence is transformed into an acerbic critique within IN THE WOODS (2002). An approximation of a scene from the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been reduced to a dense black palette with crisp white outlines, offset by a whimsical sky-blue background. In the original scene, Snow White is comforted by a league of woodland animals that transform her tears into “A Smile and a Song.” In KAWS’s version, the title character instead holds up a chipmunk to her face, and not a bluebird, while an array of bunnies, deer, and others gather around her, entranced by her beauty. However, stripped of color, with her eyes crossed out in the artist’s signature X-marks style and her hair modified to the famed cross-bone design, KAWS’ interpretation takes on the sinister undertones that are at the core of his practice of appropriation, in which classic cartoon and comic book icons are repurposed to explore the visual language within popular culture, and the role it plays in society.
Since coming on the scene in the late-1990s, KAWS has adopted iconic characters, such as the Michelin Man, Gumby, Mickey Mouse, Spongebob Square Pants, Snoopy, the Smurfs, and the Simpsons and whether on canvas, a sculpture, or in the street—the artist uses these iconic figures to develop a Pop art sensibility with rich cultural commentary into the new millennium. With its pristine and outlined quality, KAWS’ IN THE WOODS takes on the characteristics of Warhol’s Do-It-Yourself series of half-completed and hand-made, paint-by-number canvases based on their mass-produced counterparts. The artist has also spoken about the influence he received from “the pop artists like [Claes] Oldenburg and [Tom] Wesselmann” (B. Donnelly, quoted in T. Maguire, “KAWS,” Interview, April 27, 2010) in his exploration of mass consumption and the elevation of the icons of popular culture within the discourse of contemporary art.
Contrasting the sleek consumer-driven mass produced aesthetics of Warhol, the monumentality of Oldenburg, and the fetishization of Wesselmann, one can also read a great deal of influence from the work of Peter Saul, and his wry cartoonist lambasting in brushstrokes and colors resembling the Abstract Expressionists, as well as by the second generation of Pop artists, such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami. The artist recalls, “Then there were artists like Murakami, who really opened up a lot of doors on acceptance and crossover projects. That made what I was doing a bit easier to translate. And definitely Jeff Koons. I love his work. I appreciate his perfectionist mentality. It’s so over the top.” (B. Donnelly, quoted in T. Maguire, “KAWS,” Interview, April 27, 2010). Keith Haring, whose graffiti decorated New York City as KAWS came of age in nearby Brooklyn was also an influence, as seen in a photograph of the young KAWS with a Keith Haring poster hanging in his teenage-bedroom. Haring married the joys of gay culture with the awareness of the AIDS epidemic, using art to spread a political message. KAWS adopted Keith Haring’s politically-imbued Pop Art and even used Haring’s Pop Shop as an inspiration for his own boutique shop/line OriginalFake. As the inheritor of the complete toolset given by this diverse cadre of artists, KAWS builds upon a legacy of pioneering artists who questioned the consumerist tendencies of modern society and has established his own unique, signature style in the third generation of the Pop art movement. Cartoon characters, modified by the artist into humorous and witty amalgamations of themselves, have formed the foundation of artist’s practice. As such, Disney is the perfect mark with which to take aim for both cultural and personal reasons.
Those personal reasons include the artist’s roots. Brian Donnelly moved to Manhattan from New Jersey in 1996 to earn a degree in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. He arrived in New York City young, but already well-versed in a range of drawing techniques and well-steeped in graffiti culture. The name KAWS was one he’d given himself in high school while running with a crowd of graffiti artists, with whom he honed his skill and acumen. When asked about his graffiti name, the artist answered, “There’s no meaning to it. It’s just letters that I liked—K-A-W-S. I felt like they always work and function nicely with each other” (B. Donnelly, quoted in Tobey Maguire, Interview Magazine, April 27, 2010). Before he achieved success as an artist, he worked as a background painter on an animated series the Disney Company produced for television. By day, the animator and illustrator went by his given name, Brian Donnelly, while by night, he transformed himself into KAWS and New York’s city streets and public spaces into a canvas onto which he would tag his name and subvert commercial advertisements by adding his signature X’ed out eyes and crossbones to transform the heads of models into skulls. One such activity skyrocketed the young artist to a new level of attention and introduced the artist’s character, “Bendy,” inspired by the classic toy Gumby, to the world. In 1998, when the image of supermodel Christy Turlington, clad in Calvin Klein underwear, began appearing in advertisements in New York City bus shelters and subway stations, the young artist saw only inspiration. He began encircling her body with the first of what would become many characters. Inspired by Gumby, "Bendy" is a cross between a tadpole and a sperm cell. Other characters include the Michelin Man-inspired “Chum,” “Companion” featured across many editions of sculpture, and “Accomplice,” a pink rabbit wearing a bunny suit. The artist has also transformed the animated television family, the Simpsons, into the “Kimpsons.” In IN THE WOODS, KAWS returns to Disney, the company with which he started his commercial career, and a company known for its endless trove of idolized cartoon characters dating back from the twentieth-century to today.
Those cultural reasons driving the artist’s transformation of the iconic Disney character, Snow White, are found in an interview KAWS for Whitewall magazine in 2012. KAWS recalls, “Icons like Mickey, the Simpsons, the Michelin Man, and SpongeBob exist in a universal way that you forget their origin or even there [sic] narrative, and you just recognize them from the slightest glimpse of their image or sound” (B. Donnelly, quoted in conversation with K. Donoghue, Whitewall, December 2012). Continuing in a 2013 interview with Michele Llanos, KAWS “found it weird how infused a cartoon could become in people’s lives; the impact it could have, compared to regular politics” (KAWS, quoted in Michele Llanos, “Style Hero: KAWS,” tendland.com, May 20, 2013). By appropriating images in steady circulation around the world, especially those that are highly familiar to audiences across the world, KAWS subverts the image’s original meaning and reframes the ways cultural icons influence our personal narratives. Instantly recognizable to those familiar with the Disney franchise and, yet, utterly transformed by the strategic reorganization of Snow White’s face into a skull, the artist calls into question the cultural icon’s appeal while utilizing its accessibility. The skeletal Snow White nevertheless sings her cheery song, despite the change in her status from living to dead. Yet this collision of the innocence of the childhood character with the existential crisis of death is at the head of KAWS’s work. This unexpected twist to the immediately familiar imagery played on repeat throughout the twentieth-century questions the way the cartoon functions in mass culture. Here, the artist shows his own hand as complicit in making this consumable message that he critiques.
Having come a long way from the subway stations of 1990s New Jersey and New York, the artist is regarded as one of the most important painters of his generation for the precision of his craftsmanship and the ingenuity of reconceptualizing some of the American culture’s most beloved icons. At once both intuitive and highly reasoned, the artist has perceptively decoded the strategies of advertisement, a skill that has also earned him a place in the commercial world. One foot is firmly rooted in the realm of fine art where he exhibits regularly at galleries and museums such as The Brooklyn Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth, the Contemporary Art Museum in Saint Louis, as well as significant museums across China, Asia, Japan and Korea. The other foot is planted in the commercial world of advertising, branding, fashion, and product and design, supported by a series of limited edition toys, and commissions from the likes of such companies as the insurance giant, MetLife and the Japanese clothing brand, Uniqlo. KAWS is a modern day renaissance man who traverses multiple spheres of culture and transforms what he finds there using his own unique vocabulary.