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Who is KAWS, the record-smashing artist whose characters have taken over the NGV?

Ben Neutze

Earlier this year, a painting by New York artist and designer KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly) sold at Sotheby’s for an eye-watering 115.9 million Hong Kong dollars, just shy of 22 million Australian dollars. The 2005 painting, ‘The KAWS Album’, is a copy of a copy: the artist’s riff on the Simpsons’ The Yellow Album, itself a riff on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Those high-flying auction houses are a long way from where Donnelly started his career, venturing out from his New Jersey bedroom in the 1990s to paint his creepy cartoon characters onto high-end advertisements across the city. At that point, he was just lucky to find somewhere to have his work seen, and although that much has changed, his visual aesthetic – born of street art, appropriation and pop culture iconography – has remained the same.

Just a few months after that astonishing auction result, Donnelly is in Melbourne, launching his first Australian exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Called Companionship in the Age of Loneliness, it covers almost three decades of his work, in both sculpture and painting. 

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness. Photograph: Tom Ross.

But many of his fans will go to the NGV primarily for the chance to pick up some KAWS merch at the gift shop, ranging from small magnets and tote bags to collectible vinyl figures. There are T-shirts made in collaboration with Uniqlo, priced at just $19.95, for which demand is absolutely enormous. They can also be purchased in Uniqlo stores, and there were lines around the corner at the Emporium Melbourne store on the day of release.

“I’m always conscious of what reached me in my bedroom in Jersey City, and making works that can disseminate in the same way, whether it’s a toy, a watch, a sneaker,” Donnelly says. That’s why his collaborations range from high-end labels like Dior through to the more accessible Uniqlo. Not that those choices make much difference to the frenzy that happens whenever he releases a new product, which is particularly strong in Japan, where he first sold his vinyl figures.

One irony is that Donnelly’s career started by appropriating and defacing advertisements for major fashion brands on the streets of New York. Now those brands are core to his work and desperate to have his name on their products.

“I thought I would get arrested if I met them,” he says of those early unofficial collaborations with brands. “In hindsight, it makes perfect sense, if you look at the attention you bring to a brand in doing that. At the time, I thought they wouldn’t be interested.”

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness. Photograph: Tom Ross.

Donnelly isn’t the first street artist whose work has been brought indoors at major public galleries – Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are both celebrated in the NGV’s other major exhibition this summer – but few have commercialised their work to the same degree. KAWS is known for straddling the worlds of fine art and commercial art and design, perhaps better than any other artist of his generation.

When asked if there was a particular moment when the fine art world started to accept his work, Donnelly says: “I’m still waiting for it to happen.”

That’s quite a statement to make when launching a solo exhibition at the oldest and most visited art museum in Australia (and 22nd in the world). When reminded that his work is being seen in this setting, Donnelly responds simply, “That’s true, but the NGV is very open-minded.”

The NGV has looked to the vulnerability of the KAWS characters – frequently shown alone, in a moment of sadness or loneliness – and crafted an exhibition that’s all about our need for human connection. But Donnelly seems almost cynical about the gallery’s desire to contextualise and intellectualise his work. At the media preview for the exhibition, minister for creative industries Martin Foley spoke at length about the message that KAWS conveys about the importance of connection in the 21st century. So does Donnelly see that as the message of his work?

“Not really, and I don’t really assign any firm message to my work,” he says. “If he’s talking about connectivity, I see that I work in a lot of different mediums, and I’m trying to include rather than exclude.”

He’s certainly not afraid of including the work of other artists and designers in his own and draws from a wide range of cultural touchstones, particularly cartoons: Spongebob Squarepants, the Simpsons, Mickey Mouse, Snoopy and Sesame Street characters all feature heavily in his work. So then what exactly is the KAWS process, and how does he decide which imagery to appropriate and augment?

KAWS, 'Gone', 2019. Photograph: Tom Ross.

“I just sort of think about what I grew up with, and what got into my life, and what is very true to me, but also timeless. And just how things exist culturally. I just love the way that cartoons can exist in different countries in different languages, and you can be in a place where you don’t speak the same language as somebody, but you grew up on the same cartoons. Even if you’re in the strangest part of town in another country in the counterfeit section, and seeing all these derivatives of these icons you grew up with.”

Of course, appropriation isn’t anything new in the art world, but the degree to which he works with pre-existing imagery is part of what makes certain institutions reluctant to accept his work. Then there’s his popularity with pop figures; unsurprisingly, it doesn’t help your fine art credentials when Justin Bieber is among your collectors and you’re working extensively with characters from The Simpsons. But Donnelly thinks the tide may be changing when it comes to his work in major institutions.

“We grow up on certain artists and they’ve always been in the museums that we enter, and to us it seems totally normal,” he says. “Maybe in ten, 15, 20 years, work like mine might seem normal in these sorts of spaces… But for me, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Acceptance, non-acceptance, criticism, praise; it’s not really going to change the stuff that I’m making, and so I just need to focus and follow through on what I want to bring to fruition.”

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness is at NGV International until March 1.

Check out the best exhibitions in Melbourne this month and hunt down our city's finest street art.

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