Untitled, 2012, by KAWS (Brian Donnelly) is a humorous magnification, part of the artist’s celebrated series of round canvases featuring closely cropped images of cartoon characters. In the present work, a purple tongue lolls out of the toothy mouth. Although figural, the forms of Untitled create abstracted geometry, and the work is a rollicking mosaic of vivid intensity. ‘What’s abstraction to somebody that knows something?’ he 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 interviewed in ‘KAWS On Man's Best Friend at Honor Fraser’, The Hundreds, 16 September 2014). Although each colour in Untitled is evenly matte, KAWS hand painted the entire composition, building up his pigments to rival an airbrush, a choice that perhaps grew out of his background as a graffiti artist; KAWS is his tag. While studying at the School of Visual Arts, New York, he began tagging atop the advertisements plastered over New York City’s celebrated graffiti sites.
Creating a range of characters, KAWS produced a provocative critique of consumer culture. His cartoonish aesthetic offers a powerful means of communication, presenting a vernacular that easily traverses cultural divides: ‘[I] 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 B. Donnelly, ‘Graffiti Artist Turned Gallery Artist Turned Art Toy Maker, KAWS’ Pop, February 2007, pp. 260-265). After graduating from university, KAWS travelled to Tokyo and Hong Kong, cities which informed his bourgeoning visual language that blended art historical references with Pop art themes funnelled through an array of cartoons. By distorting well-known figures with whom his viewers are already familiar, KAWS subverts culturally-sanctioned meaning in favour of sharp commentary, charting a new course inspired by artists such as Takashi Murakami and Claes Oldenburg. In staging these formal and intellectual oppositions, Untitled is bold and unorthodox, an explosion of vibrant potency.