American street artist Brian Donnelly, aka Kaws, emerged from New York’s graffiti scene in the ’90s tagging trains and busting open bus and phone booth shelters in the Lower East Side. There, he’d take out the advertisements to add skull and crossbones motifs and place the letters ‘XX’ as eyes before putting them back in the dead of night.
The 45-year-old Brooklyn-based artist, who works from his studio in Williamsburg, is one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary artists; a modern-day phenomenon whose painting, ‘The Kaws Album’, sold for US$14.8 million at a Hong Kong Sotheby’s auction earlier this year—14 times higher than its estimated price. He didn’t profit from the sale though as it was a secondary market purchase.
He has a huge following in Asia, more than 2.4 million followers on Instagram and made a name for himself through a line of vinyl toys and collaborating with big brands like Dior, Nike and Sesame Street along the way.
He never thought a painting he created in 2005 would become such a hotly sought-after piece of work. ‘The Kaws Album’ is a riff on a riff of the cover of the Beatles 1967 album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Kaws’ work is a parody of a parody from The Simpsons cartoon.
The work made international headlines when Canadian singer Justin Bieber posted the image to his social media without a comment, prompting the world to suspect he was the buyer.
Fans can now explore the world of Kaws at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne, which is hosting a comprehensive survey of 25 years of his paintings and sculptures. They have been unveiled for the first time in Australia for the exhibition, called Kaws: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness, which is on until April 2020.
Besides larger-than-life sculptures, first drawings and those famous bus shelter advertisements, the exhibition also includes a newly commissioned seven-metre bronze sculpture titled Gone—a take on Michelangelo’s famous marble sculpture Pieta, where Jesus is being held in the arms of his mother Mary after his crucifixion. But in 2019 and in the hands of Donnelly, a giant toy that looks like Mickey Mouse is holding Sesame Street’s Elmo in that same embrace. The monumental work will remain a permanent part of the NGV collection and bridges the conversation between art, sacrifice and its theme, companionship in the new age of loneliness.
“I wanted to make a sculpture dealing with loss to tie back to the theme of the exhibition,” explains Donnelly. “I wanted it to have that sort of dynamic between the characters and how I achieve the weight of that and still fill it with plenty of emotion in the sculpture. When creating that, I was thinking very much about getting the look right for it.”
Kaws: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness is where pop culture riffs on existential wonderment. Donnelly isn’t big on explaining his art and the meaning behind it, but this is where pop culture leans on our fears while delivering fulfilment.
He’s found a way to take street art to the masses on his terms, and while he’s collaborated with everyone from Kanye West to Dior, Comme Des Garcon and Uniqlo on everything from fashion to sneakers, stuffed toys to furniture, he’s largely kept a low profile and doesn’t bask in the limelight of his fame or fortune.
He takes from pop culture’s most- known characters—think Sesame Street, Snoopy and The Simpsons—and repurposes their place within his own broad analysis, converting their eyes with his signature X marks the spot, sometimes manipulating them into corners of isolation and introspection. They look deadly sweet, sickly cute and make the perfect collectable fodder for his cult of worshippers.
He exhibits worldwide on a regular basis. The mid-career artist has shown solo works at Yorkshire Sculpture Park in West Yorkshire, England; the Modern Art Museum Of Fort Worth; Yuz Museum Shanghai; Contemporary Art Museum St Louis and the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation to name a few.
“I’m still waiting for my career breakthrough,” he says a week into arriving in Australia with his wife Julia Chiang, also an artist, and their two children, Sunny aged five and baby Lee.
“This isn’t a career to me, I just do what I love,” says Donnelly, who recently created a 37m-long floating sculpture in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour.
He admits that when he creates art, it’s the work he puts less thought into that feel more significant to him.
“Sometimes I create art in the moment and it feels like the greatest thing I have ever done, and then when I look back and think it wasn’t that important,” he says. “And then it’s when things come out of the blue or on a whim that they resonate and feel so much deeper.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Donnelly chose the name Kaws because he liked the way the letters looked alongside each other. Little did he know it would become his permanent title.
He moved to New York to study art in the ’90s, finding apartments to rent on the corner of Clinton and Stanton streets in the Lower East Side. His parents put him through New York’s School of Visual Arts before embarking on a trip to Japan in 1997 to hang with other artists including Nigo who would introduce him to the world of collaborations.
Taking down ads from bus shelters and phone booths was his favourite pastime and he regrets not keeping the ads in his archives. He managed to do 70 during the ’90s.
“From doing my first graffiti to painting over my first billboard in 1993 [that was of a Marlboro ad], it sparked something in my mind that I could get into shelters and paint over advertisements,” explains Donnelly of his epiphany to expand beyond graffiti culture. “In my mind at that time I was completely consumed with something new that nobody else was doing. It felt new and inspiring and saw me do less tagging of trains and street art and more of this kind of work. I have always been naively optimistic in life and this was one of the first times I felt I had found something new that was totally my mark.”
In 2001, 9/11 changed things for Donnelly who left Manhattan for Brooklyn. From hitting shelters and booths on Delancey, Soho and Nolita and other spots on the Lower East Side, Donnelly stopped working for many months.
“9/11 happened and it made it hard to do anything on the street,” he says. “I hardly left the house. There was a whole period when I just stayed in Brooklyn; it was hard to go to Manhattan. I did a phone booth in Brooklyn just after the towers came down, but I was too self-conscious and everyone was self-conscious in the city. Before 9/11, breaking into a phone booth shelter didn’t see anyone bat an eyelid. They’d just continue walking past you and laugh. [But after] there was a lot of suspicions and it didn’t feel right to do it so I backed right off. Also, the works started getting stolen so quick that my communication got cut off.”
The NGV exhibition features about 100 artworks, from those famous billboards, phone booths and bus stops to sculptures, a Snoopy sofa—made of soft toy Snoopys in collaboration with South American furniture brand Campana—and a series that borrows from The Smurfs. There’s even an ode to Fat Albert and his famous Kimpsons works to Peanuts.
Donnelly draws from pop culture and puts his own stamp on it. When he had the chance to meet the renowned British fashion photographer David Sims a few years ago, he didn’t think that defacing his billboards in the ’90s would years later see them become friends.
“I was at a restaurant/bar with a friend of mine who saw David there and said you’ll love him, you have to meet him, you’ve painted over his work millions of times,” he smiles. “I was nervous, but he turned out to be a great guy. I went to London and stayed with him and chose a bunch of negatives he had. He made prints of them and posted them to me and I painted over them—they’re in this exhibition.
These images of Kate Moss and Iggy Pop among others are iconic ones in their own right, but I got completely in his mindset and I felt it was very generous for him to be so open with his work and allow me to do it again.”
Did he ever expect his take on The Simpsons and cult following of his Kimpsons work to become the huge success it has?
“To be fully honest, I am not interested in the narrative of The Simpsons when I am making the paintings. It’s more about The Simpsons culture and how that show became this globally recognised image that unites people from all around the world who don’t all necessarily speak the same language,” he says.
It was his foray into luxury fashion house Dior that put the Kaws brand in a new sphere. When the opportunity to work with Dior presented itself a year ago, Donnelly knew it was one he couldn’t pass on.
“I knew Kim Jones from his days at Louis Vuitton. We’ve always tried to do something together but the timing wasn’t quite right,” he says. “He told me he was moving to Dior and wanted to do this collaboration with me. I said of course. Dior wasn’t really known for its collaborations so it seemed very new and I went right for it.”
The Dior spring/summer 2019 collection features a range of sportswear apparel emblazoned with the house’s signature bee logo, reinterpreted by the famed street artist. T-shirts, track jackets and sweaters were all punctuated with Kaws’ revamped bee motif in addition to a chest patch inspired by name tag stickers.
And how could we forget Paris Fashion Week where a large 6.7m sculpture of Kaws’ signature BFF loomed larger than life adorned with 1,000 pink roses.
“I almost never look for collaborations,” says Donnelly, whose Uniqlo T-shirts sell out faster than you can type Kaws on your phone. “Most of these things happen organically. I get proposals all the time and do things constantly, but it needs to make sense to me. There is a fine line and I don’t do this for the money, I do it for the satisfaction and art’s sake.”
Kaws: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness runs from now to 13 April 2020 at National Gallery Of Victoria, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne