KAWS is a New York based artist, designer and a successor of Pop Art. His trademark cartoon-like graffiti style skull and cross bones characters are a staple in his artwork, taking many different forms from paintings, silk-screen prints and sculpture to clothing and toys- making consumer products and fine art, turning art into a brand and making fine and commercial art. Merging fine art, street art, advertising, product design, graphics and fashion, creating an icon through the process- COMPANION as well as a family of characters.
Some of his art includes adapting recognisable cartoons and imagery in pop culture such as The Smurfs, Spongebob Squarepants, Pinocchio and many more into his own image. He has collaborated with some of the coolest and biggest fashion brands such as Nike, Comme De Garcon, Marc Jacobs, Nike, Vans and Mira Mikati. He has worked with artist like Kanye West and also did work for MTV, re-designing the VMA moon man and doing some of set design in 2013.
In works like "Original Fake" and "The Kimpsons" KAWS appropriates iconic cartoons in popular culture such as Pinocchio, Snoopy and The Simpsons but conceals their identities and replaces it with his trademark skull and crossbones head with crossed out eyes which appear to be insidiously invading cartoon-land. These blank, non-faces create a sense of being lost or being an outsider, rejecting their happy, loveable personas. These new faces act like a mask hiding away their joy and exposing emptiness and darkness, which they are not allowed to show as their usual selves.
When first looking at some of KAWS' work, it could be seen as narcissist, re-creating famous cartoon in his own image, putting his face on every character. It could be seen a statement like "I am iconic", putting himself at the centre of recognisable scenes, dominating some of the world's most iconic characters. These characters are instantly recognisable which creates instant fame. They are symbols that are understood across any language, universally known and loved. Everyone has some kind of a connection with them, creating the feeling of familiarity or nostalgia.
He started his career as a graffiti artist in the 90's, adapting imagery on billboards. He created street art by unlocking the glass cases of phone boxes and bus stops, carefully removing the advert and skilfully paint over them. Instead of defacing the original image he would create a relationship between his artwork and the advert. As his popularity increased, his work became highly in demand. Graffiti is one of the most narcissistic forms of art, putting your attention grabbing mark on something that doesn't belong to you to prove you were there, although that's not always a bad thing. Thought provoking, unapologetic, inspiring artwork is essential. However, KAWS wasn't doing street art as an attack or rebellion against the campaigns, it was more about space and territory. He says "...advertising was dominating Manhattan with all these big building-side murals, taking over a lot of spots that were great spots for ages. I started to think about it almost like competing with the advertisers for space." In most if not all of these adaptions to adverts, his signature skull and crossbones would make an appearance. Later it would be developed into his own character COMPANION who is the star of a lot of KAWS' work.
2016, KAWS sculptures took residency at Yorkshire Sculpture Park as though they'd crash landed there with a feeling of guilt, sorrow and confusion as to what happen to them. They gave the impression of having real human reactions to being on display and being exposed to the audience at the exhibition observing and judging them. The sculptures convey embarrassment or feeling shy. The attitudes of KAWS figures are relatable with the moods, fears and doubts of real people in real life making the viewer have empathy towards his work.
COMPANION deliberately makes references to Mickey Mouse with his chunky shoes, white gloves, and the big button on his trousers which are all distinctive in the Mickey Mouse uniform. This iconic mouse is a symbol that is at the forefront of Pop Art, Pop culture and childhood toys, merchandise, film and cartoon. Loved by many and has bought joy into peoples lives, this Disney familiarly is guaranteed to connect with the viewer but has now turned into something sinister, almost like KAWS wants the audience to have a maternal reaction and to be concerned by the despair of the artwork.
These sculptures formed as though they were KAWS toys but oversized have a sense of irony. We have all looked for comfort in toys at one point in our lives but there's some kind of role reversal that is happening where the sculptures look like they're in a vulnerable state and are in need of consoling despite their size and the fact the viewer is now doll size.
GOOD INTENTIONS has a shy, child COMPANION partially hiding behind and holding onto the leg of a parental figure of COMPANION who's acting like the protector, keeping the child safe.
ALONG THE WAY (2013) shows two COMPANIONS slumped and mutually supporting each other as though they were helping each other get home after a night out or war wounded soldiers.
AT THIS TIME (2013), COMPANION hides his eyes in his hands in regret. The name suggest an internal "OH NO!" which could be interpreted as he has forgotten to do something, he has to much to do and the tasks keep mounting up or he has to be an adult today and has being partying all night. Either way he can not cope today and is using his hands to shield himself from responsibilities.
SMALL LIE (2013) and GOOD INTENTIONS (2015) are made from natural wood grain left exposed giving the feel of a quality, vintage toy and with connection to Pinocchio- a wooden boy with human flaws.
BETTER KNOWING (2013) has a teenaged COMPANION sitting by himself, crossed legged clutching his Pinocchio nose in his hand and looks to be emotionally closed off. He's physically lost his nose but the we know by the reference to Pinocchio and the stance of the figure, he has lost more than that. This COMPANION represents the loss of innocence and the loss of trust. Either he has being caught lying or doing something wrong that he didn't realise was wrong until he had made the mistake, or he has been betrayed, misled or used. It shows the landmark, painful moment of the first time you've fucked up or someone else has fucked you up.