KAWS: WHAT PARTY is showing now at the Brooklyn Museum through September 5, 2021.

By Rachel Mohl

This retrospective traces KAWS’ work over the last twenty-five years. Brian Donnelly, originally an American street artist (born 1974), has become known world-wide for his large scale sculptures of his popular COMPANION figures.  It’s fitting that this Brooklyn-based artist would “come home” for his first museum survey.

KAWS’ work bridges the worlds of art, popular culture, and commerce. His pieces both critique and participate in consumer culture. The exhibition features more than one hundred broad-ranging works including rarely seen early graffiti drawings and notebooks, a mix of paintings and sculptures, smaller collectibles, furniture, and a few monumental installations. 

His early work in the 1990s began with tagging or writing his alias on walls, train cars and billboards and evolved into more pointed public interventions involving manipulating advertisements. In 1997 KAWS made the 1st of many trips to Tokyo, Japan. His experiences there introduced him to the Japanese cartoon culture and heightened his awareness of the ability of cartoon characters to communicate across language barriers. he noted the ubiquity of merchandise featuring characters from The Simpsons and in 2000 he made his 1st painting series based on members of the show’s nuclear family. While he retains identifying details of their hairstyle and dress, he transforms the characters’ faces into his signature skull and crossbones with x’s over their eyes. 

KAWS continued to use cartoon characters in his paintings using subjects from other animated shows like the Smurfs, Sesame Street, SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as Snoopy. The characters and situations in which they interact show that they are stand-ins for humans with all the behaviors and relationships that convey joy as well as dysfunction. The cartoons also suggest an element of childhood nostalgia as KAWS loved animation growing up. 

KAWS’ recent projects highlight his engagements with the placement of monumental size works in urban environments. The series of spectacular temporary projects features enormous COMPANION figures that range from 92 to just over 130 feet tall and play off the surrounding architecture and interact with the physical environment. The final room of the exhibit includes photographs that show the statues in situ around the world.

The exhibit also features new pieces made uniquely for the exhibition. KAWS created a character called CHUM that he uses to express human relationships, emotions and states of mind. The character appears in the exhibit in a new work that was created especially this year.  There is a series of vividly colored canvases titled URGE and a focus on CHUM’s face and gloved hands. The paintings hang together in 2 rows of 5. There is also a new sculptural work titled “SEPARATED,” where there is a seated COMPANION figure with its hands over its eyes. It could be seen as a reaction to the state of the world in 2020. 

The exhibition is an interesting lesson in the commercialization of art. One can have different opinions on whether that phenomena is a positive development or not, but it is becoming more and more common. When street art becomes mainstream, it certainly increases its monetary value, but does it lose its societal value?

Tickets for the exhibit are available at https://www.showclix.com/event/kaws-what-party/listing The exhibition is on view Wednesdays-Sundays, 11 am–6 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm).

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