A Time for KAWS
by Paul Laster
One of the most talented artists to emerge from the street art scene, KAWS got his start tagging billboards, bus shelters and phone booths, but soon turned his cool graphic style and iconic cast of cartoon characters into a coveted brand. Developing an innovative mix of art and design for collectable toy figures, youth fashions, magazine and record cover illustrations, and dynamic paintings and sculptures, the popular young artist has already constructed a body of work that others might only dream of doing.
Most everyone that has followed KAWS’ work—if only for the last few years—recognizes that now is his time. From a retrospective at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, surveys at the High Museum of Art and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, and solo exhibitions at Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles and the Miami, Paris, and Hong Kong branches of Galerie Perrotin to his own balloon float in last year’s Macys’ Thanksgiving Day Parade and his re-design of the MTV Moonman for the 2013 Video Music Awards, KAWS seems to everywhere.
The subject of two current museum exhibitions—at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas—and simultaneous solo shows at Galerie Perrotin at Mary Boone Gallery in New York, KAWS is giving viewers a chance to revisit some of his seminal works made over the past decade, while introducing a new series of character-shaped canvases and fresh materials for his larger-than-life “COMPANION” figures.
KAWS@PAFA started with the idea to fill an empty plinth on the institutions 19th century facade, but eventually grew into an expansive exhibition of the artist’s paintings and sculptures co-mingled with the museum’s Gothic architecture and collection of American art. The plinth piece, BORN TO BEND, features a bright-green Gumby embraced by a coiling skull-and-cross-bone spermatozoid figure. The biggest attraction in the show, however, is KAWS’ salon-style hanging of 42 abstract paintings of Sponge Bob Square Pants juxtaposed with classic canvases of equal size from the historic collection, as well as his oversized COMPANION sculptures standing sentry by some of PAFA’s most iconic works. Meanwhile, eight large canvases from the artist’s 2004 KIMPSONS series fill one complete gallery and six jumbo tondo-paintings of deconstructed Sponge Bobs bring the inner staircase to life.
UPS AND DOWNS at the Nerman Museum offers paintings and sculptures from the past three years—centered on an eponymous series of 10 small-scale canvases of discombobulated facial elements from cartoon characters. The colorful, 2012 series is shown alongside a pair of amusing, shaped paintings of Snoopy with X’d out eyes and a reclining COMPANION figure that’s eerily half real and half anatomical study.
Combined with KAWS’ tondo painting LANDING IN OZ, which makes reference to the museum’s locale in Kansas, and his 16-foot tall, shy COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) sculpture, which traveled from Hong Kong to New York, Atlanta, and Fort Worth before landing outside the entrance to modernist Nerman building, the show presents a whimsical overview of KAWS’ Post-Pop Art practice.
For his first show at Mary Boone, the artist exhibits a spare yet powerful display of his gigantic COMPANION figures handsomely carved in wood. Nearly reaching the skylights in Boone’s barn-like space, the massive characters—two together in one corner and a third by itself in another corner—reluctantly confront their audience, while in the back gallery the best of the three large tondo paintings on view (AFTERNOON DELIGHT) captures a hand quickly covering Sponge Bob’s X’d out eye to keep it from catching whoever might be admiring its seductively Superflat surface.
Finally, PASS THE BLAME, the artist’s fifth show at Galerie Perrotin—his first exhibition at the gallery’s new New York branch—continues KAWS’ inventive, cartoon-character-shaped paintings on canvas from 2012 that he made for his Imaginary Friends exhibition at Perrotin in Paris. Painting on exquisitely crafted canvases, which are shaped like Snoopy, Felix the Cat, Wimpy and Sweet Pea, Garfield, and other celebrated cartoon characters, the artist combines bits and pieces from his repertoire of comical figures—much in the way that Dr. Frankenstein cobbled together his monster—to a highly compelling end.
KAWS@PAFA is on view through January 5; UPS AND DOWNS at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art runs through February 9; and the exhibitions at Galerie Perrotin and Mary Boone Gallery continue through December 21.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author