|When a Jersey City teenager started tagging and defacing public advertisements back in the early 1990’s, he had no clue it would turn into a lucrative art career. But that’s the story of Brian Donnelly, better known as “KAWS,” that has led him to a multi-sight exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art.
Perched on the top floor above the High’s Picasso to Warhol exhibit, KAWS’ installment “DOWN TIME” seems to bring the Modernism housed in the levels below into the modern times they helped create.
His work is strange, yet strikingly familiar, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s essentially a commentary on pop-culture, drawn from pop culture and stamped on pop culture -– it has become pop culture. KAWS has taken on the manipulation (or perhaps re-imagination) of such iconic characters as Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons and Sponge Bob Square Paints. His street-art style dots urban encampments around the globe and offers imagery virtually every culture can relate to.
The High exhibition features a number of these icons, including a 16-foot tall sculpture of Mickey Mouse-like sculpture dubbed “Companion” in the museum’s piazza. A florescent color palette and tight cropped compositions of cartoonish features make a gridded install of 27 round paintings pop off the wall with a questioning familiarity. The images appear as if part of a larger story and narrative unfolding just out of frame (or on your TV screen at home) as you go on about your life, from advertisement to advertisement.
As the young artist gained popularity back in the ‘90s, his subversive images -- scrawled on billboards, bus stops and phone booths -- became hot commodities. Eventually, this work would prove to be a precursor to actual collaboration with commercial photographers and brands.
When KAWS met British photographer David Sims, who happened to have shot a number of the ad campaigns KAWS had worked on top of, a few years back it was the start of a series that would find its way to the walls of the High. KAWS took his acrylic paints to Sims’s actual photos, producing a unique infusion of two rival forms of accepted popular culture that constituted a sizable portion of his installment at the High.
Since the early days, KAWS has also branched out from graffiti -– far out. He doesn’t even do graffiti anymore, at least not on city walls, but the elements of his youth are unmistakable and irreplaceable in his work. Simply put, KAWS has his hands in everything from limited-edition vinyl toys and t-shirt design to fine art painting and sculpting. That also puts him at the crossroads of a variety of different worlds. For toy collectors he’s the toy maker, for graffiti artists he’s the street artist, for art aficionados he’s the painter.
Yet somehow his work finds a strange continuity between distinct groups with unique tastes, in the United States and abroad. In this ever more interconnected world it’s entirely possible, more than anything else, that KAWS’ work illustrates we’re all part of a global culture, transversing borders and long standing notions of what individuality and uniqueness actually are.
“KAWS: DOWN TIME” will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta until May 20, 2012.
iPhoneography credits: Clay Duda/JJIE.
- Getting Up: Improving Youth Outcomes with Graffiti in Denver
- From the Editor: Art and Vandalism, Under the Bridge
- Gallery: The Graffiti Project on Bokeh