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KAWS retrospective opens in New York

Thomas Urbain

Agence France-Presse

New York, United States  /  Sat, February 27, 2021  /  10:34 pm

A retrospective of acclaimed US street artist KAWS opened in New York on Friday, featuring his trademark skull-headed figures.

The artist's unique creations have been featured around the world but the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum marks the first major retrospective in his 25-year career.

"KAWS: What Party", traces the artistic journey of Brian Donnelly, ex-graffiti artist turned painter and sculptor.

The exhibition, which runs until September 5, features his anti-heroes Companion and Chum, whose faces are inspired by skulls on pirate flags.

Companion's body is reminiscent of Mickey Mouse while Chum has been likened to the Michelin Man.

"The work of KAWS addresses universal emotions such as loneliness, melancholy and companionship," said Joan Robledo-Palop, whose New York gallery Zeit Contemporary Art has sold nearly 100 Donnelly works.

Donnelly, who turned 46 on Friday and who did not return requests for comment from AFP, has given very little away about his thought processes during his career.

For exhibition curator Eugenie Tsai, KAWS's characters manage to be light-hearted but also melancholic and introspective.

They "resonate with all of us in life in general," she said. "Not everything is fun."

The exhibition chronicles KAWS's twenty-five-year practice, featuring graffiti drawings, paintings, smaller collectibles, furniture, recent augmented reality projects, and sculptures.The exhibition chronicles KAWS's twenty-five-year practice, featuring graffiti drawings, paintings, smaller collectibles, furniture, recent augmented reality projects, and sculptures. (AFP/Angela Weiss)

Despite initial criticisms in the art world that his work was superficial, KAWS quickly found his audience, including among celebrities, before conquering the wider public.

KAWS gained traction in Asia first, particularly Japan, before rising to prominence in the west where music producer Pharrell Williams and rapper Jay-Z acquired his work.

Tsai sees hallmarks of late New York pop artist Keith Haring in KAWS' paintings in becoming accessible to young people as well as older collectors.

In April 2019, "The Kaws Album", which placed characters from "The Simpsons" on the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper' Lonely Hearts Club Band" cover, sold for $14.7 million in Hong Kong.

The sale shattered the record for a Donnelly work, but he is also influential at the lower end of the market.

In 2019 KAWS -- who used to graffiti trains in Jersey City -- collaborated with Japanese ready-to-wear brand Uniqlo for a mini-collection, with some items going for less than $20.

"I think KAWS connects with pop art and the idea that art can be a business enterprise," said Robledo-Palop.

"The blurring lines between what is a commodity and what is a work of art is something that we owe to Andy Warhol.

"KAWS has perfected the Warholian project and brought it to new heights in the 21st century.

In recent years, Donnelly has ventured into abstract painting, using bright colors and deconstructing elements of his favorite characters to the point they are unrecognizable.

"The purpose of a mid-career museum survey is to reevaluate the work of an artist," said Robledo-Palop.

"The Brooklyn Museum exhibition is a great opportunity to discover the coherence and talent of the artist," he added.

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