Fine art and commercial art don’t have to be enemies — at least, Brian Donnelly doesn’t think so. Better known by his artist name KAWS, Donnelly has made a career in the grey space between art galleries and New York City side streets. Alongside partners like Dior and Uniqlo, KAWS padded his resume with limited-edition stints in fashion and merchandising. Despite the diverse set of pursuits, a common thread holds them together: graffiti. The oft-maligned sub-genre was KAWS’ first brush with creativity. He credits his time as a graffiti writer for shaping his practice and exposing him to an artistic community still keeps in touch. Bringing his work to Canada for the first time, KAWS’ latest exhibition sets out to prove street art is fine art.
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is firmly in the ‘fine arts’ camp, with massive archways framing the open-concept event space. In the back of the room, a curved, wooden staircase spirals up to the gallery’s lofty ceilings. We sat at the bottom of the stairs, in a floor filled with rows of chairs for the eager audience. Accompanied by chief curator Julian Cox, KAWS took the stage to talk about his exhibit, FAMILY, to a crowd of early-show previewers. “I feel super lucky and fortunate to enter Canada— I’m excited to be here, excited to show this,” he said. The feeling was mutual: the AGO steps were decked out with posters advertising the exhibition.
The exhibit spans three spaces, each lined with numerous statues and canvases that nearly stretch from floor to ceiling. Walking in, a group of four black statues stand like a nuclear family posing for a picture. Wrapping around the corner, massive paintings show reimagined advertisements for Reese’s Puffs.
Though his work is larger than life, KAWS is humble. He’s quick to credit a natural connection to the street art scene for bolstering his creative confidence. Coming up through the graffiti community was like: “a world outside of this museum world, it’s really just people who like to paint. To me it’s the most honest form of art-making. It’s refreshing, there’s nothing more to it — just spending the day making something.” From someone else, the statement might feel like a half-truth; when you reach the level of fame that KAWS has, craft feels secondary to celebrity. His work, however, has the credibility to back it up — ultra-smooth brushstrokes cover his supersized iron statues, indicating hours spent in the studio. You can’t fake dedication.
The exhibit doesn’t just focus on the polished products, though — a series of sketches shows the artistic process behind their three-dimensional counterparts. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how KAWS creatures walk off graffiti-covered walls and into the gallery; as off-the-cuff as they seem, each work is the product of laborious planning.
That said, KAWS is far from predictable. Finding inspiration worldwide, he’s become well-established in New York and abroad. The distinctive sculptures have journeyed to far-off locales including Hong Kong. “Traveling is so important, you know? Everybody in this room should just take any opportunity you can to throw yourself into a different culture; you start to realize… what travels, what imagery travels,” he said of his international experiences. “It’s just — it’s great to go to countries and see what things translate beyond language.”
No matter the distance, though, KAWS’ roots are always with him. Enduring friendships from early years eased the transition from alleyway to exhibition. Asked about his early collaborations, KAWS said: “I was in the right place at that time… you know? From having friends on the street back home, that I got to meet with and make stuff.” Over the years, that ‘stuff’ has taken on numerous forms — most recently, a collaboration with Uniqlo hit the shelves (it’s already sold out online). Celebrated graffiti writers and streetwear brands have a growing overlap — last winter, Coach teamed up with Mint + Serf, blending refined Coach patterns with the raw, pulsing energy of New York artists.
Saturated, deep blues and pastel pinks wash over sculpted iron works with the liberated ease of an artist spraying paint on concrete. They’re uninhibited and raw. KAWS credits his childhood for the iconography; once figures from skateboarding subculture spilled onto the canvas, he never looked back.
In FAMILY, these recurring, MICHELIN-like characters weave a series of works together, seamlessly integrating two-dimensional paintings with larger, iron-based structures. KAWS didn’t set out to create a cinematic universe, though. According to the artist, it happened organically. “The characters just developed over time, and I use them as forms that I communicate through and put my own thoughts [into].”
It’s easy to see how they manifest KAWS’ emotions — figures pop up in numerous combinations, caring for each other in one moment, then fighting the next. The humanoid sculptures interact with one another in cartoonish, yet viscerally emotional scenes. That’s not to say the artist is turbulent, but that his work is vulnerable.
In another series, he imposes graffiti-like stripes across repurposed ad campaigns. Scrappy, street-art vibrance refreshes the workshopped images on mass-produced advertisements. Combining graffiti’s down-to-earth nature with ultra-sleek, commercial images, KAWS is both stunning and subversive.
At its heart, FAMILY does what KAWS has always done; it redefines art, peeling back the veneer of everyday objects to reveal the artistic value underneath. Authenticity is the only prerequisite for artwork — whether it’s sprayed on a billboard or sculpted in iron. For KAWS, everything has merit: the grimy brick walls, pantry shelf boxes, and telephone pole posters included.
Feature image: KAWS. GONE, 2020. Bronze, paint, Overall: 181 × 181.6 × 79.1 cm, 323 kg. © KAWS.