Cool and collected
It's almost impossible to escape KAWS' work these days. Whether it's the artist's clothing label Original Fake, album covers for Kanye West, the collectable toys, a new watch series or, of course, his artwork, KAWS has a restless urge to convey his message in as many mediums as possible.
His presence in Hong Kong went up a notch recently with two projects: his show, 'The Nature of Need', was exhibited at Galerie Perrotin until the end of last month; and his new watch collaboration with innovative brand Ikepod also made its debut, available exclusively at hip gadget emporium Gurus.
Art, however, remains his focus, and 'The Nature of Need' comprised 50 newly commissioned paintings dealing with a subject that fascinates him. 'With this show, I'm thinking about the parallels between people and their needs, things they like to collect or have in their lives. It can work on many levels. You can have a connoisseur of cookie jars and to him that's the world. To me that's really interesting.'
Collecting and collectors are a big theme in KAWS' work; in 2000/01 he made a well-received series, 'Package Paintings', that played on the obsession with collecting boxed toys. 'I find it interesting how people collect, or whether it's a museum that collects and redistributes the images to people and tells them 'This is important'. Galleries and shops do the same,' he says.
KAWS was born Brian Donnelly in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1974. His upbringing was not particularly artistic, he says, but his passion for skateboarding opened the doors to art. 'I didn't grow up in a household that took me to museums and galleries. Only recently have I felt comfortable walking around galleries. But growing up skating, reading things like skating magazines and the graphics on stickers - all that occupied a lot of my space and informed me.'
His artistic education was traditional - he enrolled in a BFA course at the School of the Visual Arts in New York - but the budding artist supplemented his studies with extracurricular activities at night. 'During the day, I was majoring in illustration, I was trained as a realist oil painter, and I would be studying the work of [J.C.] Leyendecker and others. At night I'd be out on the streets doing pieces and at the same time I would be studying and appreciating the work of ['80s graffiti artists] Zephyr and Revolt.'
He came up with the name KAWS because it looked good for tagging as well as being short and memorable. Today, he sees other benefits to the name. 'If I was working under my birth name, Brian Donnelly, you might be thinking 'Oh Irish, Caucasian'. You would have all these associations which you don't have with a name like KAWS, so it's all about the work - which is where I want the focus.'
KAWS admits the name has become a brand and makes it easier for him to work on non-art projects. But it does have punning potential. 'I've heard so many bad puns ... KAWS and Effect, KAWS Celebre, Just KAWS. I'm a lazy journalist's dream,' he says with a laugh.
From his first billboard in 1993, KAWS the graffiti artist quickly became infamous for his subversion of street advertising, particularly for leaving his calling card on the more pretentious fashion advertising found on phone booths and bus shelters. KAWS has now stopped working on the streets, but he is at pains to stress he hasn't become a 'street artist'.
'Graffiti and street art, well there's a distinct difference. Graffiti is lettering, on walls, trains, tagging, piecing, it's on the street.'
Street art, on the other hand, has little or nothing to do with the street; KAWS feels it is less art and more a modern phenomenon. 'It's grown into this huge thing. When I was doing it, it really wasn't a term, I was doing it during the daytime and no one understood it, but now there are retrospectives.'
For KAWS, street art is a media-driven label that encapsulates a lot of things wrong with the art world. 'It's frustrating for me for someone to come into a show like this and say 'Oh, street art'. It's the same with journalists who say 'Street art is KAWS',' he laments. 'I haven't done work on the street for 10 or 12 years.'
Art is a simple binary consideration for him. 'When I think of art, I think of good art and bad art. When you make art, you need to compete, not just against graffiti or so called street art, but against all forms.' He's more than happy to have his work considered alongside other work found in galleries as he's confident the integrity of the work holds up.
In recent years, KAWS has found other avenues to communicate his passions and interests. 'I know with this show, the circle I communicate with is smaller, but with a T-shirt or a watch and the toys, I reach more people,' he says. His clothing label, Original Fake, has a cult-like following, particularly in Japan and increasingly in Hong Kong. Sold through his website, his toys riff on his larger art pieces and his popular interpretation of SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons characters (The Klimpsons in KAWS' world) are also collectors' items.
KAWS' new projects, pieces and products have often been the result of informal collaboration, an important legacy of his graffiti days. 'I like working with people. I like responding to what people do and them responding to what I do.'
As with his art, his move into watches and other products has always been about increasing the audience for his ideas. 'I don't want to be a watchmaker or own a watch company but I wanted to make one nice watch,' he says earnestly. 'I want to communicate with people.'