In Arts + Entertainment

‘KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness’ – The Cult Pop Artist Comes To Melbourne

Contemporary American artist KAWS’s latest exhibition KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness opened at the National Gallery of Victoria in September and is on until April 2020. The exhibition is KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly)’s most comprehensive ever, and is attracting a whole new audience to the NGV.

Visitors to the gallery are greeted by a gigantic, newly commissioned bronze sculpture, entitled GONE, 2019, which consumes the foyer. It’s KAWS’ largest bronze to date, standing at 7m high and weighing 14 tonnes, the sculpture evokes a sense of sorrow and empathy.

KAWS engages with universal feelings of isolation and loneliness through his works, in reaction to the turbulent world we live in today. His larger-than-life sculptures are playful, toy-like figures, however at closer look, they reveal a fragility and darkness in the vulnerable poses of the characters.

Simon Maidment, Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at NGV says “these characters or sculpture figurines Brian has been creating exhibit these quite human emotions, quite comforting and protective or offering solace to another character and I found what people were projecting onto these cartoon-like characters were aspects of their humanity or their own emotionality”.

“It struck me that Brian’s work resonates with a particular demographic, including young men that might struggle with social isolation and loneliness. Brian’s characters either embody those intense emotions or are the antidote, this sense of companionship.

All his characters are named after an entity or person who would be there with you through thick and thin so the large bronze character at the entrance is called ‘Companion’ and the character that is being held is called ‘BFF’.

The name implies they are your offsider, sidekick or friend. Brian himself had never articulated this before and it demonstrates a way for people to see the humanity that exists within that is otherwise difficult to talk about in his work that tends to be read as interacting with cartoons rather than interacting with people,” says Maidment.

KAWS: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness charts his 25 years career, featuring more than 100 works from early sketches to iconic paintings to his more recent large-scale abstract works and celebrated sculptural figures.

KAWS began his artistic career outside of the traditional art world during the height of graffiti and street art culture in New York in the early 1990s before attending the School of Visual Arts in New York where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts. He went on to work for Jumbo Pictures animation studio, painting cells for animated series including Disney’s 101 Dalmatians and Doug, and MTV’s cult series Daria.

The exhibition starts with the two major works in the foyer and then works chronologically before ending with the last room returning to his celebrated work with sculptures. From more humble beginnings, the exhibition starts with sketchbooks and documentation of street art projects date back to 1981. “The name KAWS he made up because he liked the way it sounded,” Maidment says.

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“It’s a bit tough and he liked the way the letters and curves worked together.”

During the 90s, he began to develop his signature motifs, the skull and crossbones that appeared painted over the beautiful faces of late 90s Manhattan advertising posters in what the artist refers to as ‘subvertising’.

“Brian would steal posters, add insertions and then would go back to the public sphere and every bus shelter would be plastered with KAWS and that’s how he became a sensation,” says Maidment.

In the late 90s, KAWS began making limited edition toys after visits to Japan and experiencing the collectible market there. His editions soon became cult objects amongst collectors and since then he has produced more than 130 toys. The gallery’s shop stocks a range of KAWS merchandise, which is constantly selling out and being restocked for adoring fans.

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The exhibition draws on a large number of loans from private collectors, such as Pharrell Williams who was an early champion of KAWS work and a visible collector. On loan is KAWS’s ‘KAWSBOB 3’, a riff on SpongeBob SquarePants, a bright, vibrant piece not to be missed.

One of the most significant works on show is “The KAWS Album” a rendition of the Simpsons’ The Yellow Album which itself is a rendition of the Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The work recently sold at auction earlier this year for an eye-watering $14.7m USD, with the collector only enjoying the painting for two weeks before it was shipped to Melbourne for this latest exhibition.

Accompanying the main exhibition, KAWS: PLAYTIME is a dedicated playful kids exhibition that KAWS has created, introducing promising young artists of today to his creative approach and artistic methods of integrating pop culture into his work.

(All images: National Gallery of Victoria / supplied)

Published 02 December, 2019