For curator Eugenie Tsai, installation of “Kaws: What Party” was at times a visceral experience. She was recently watching riggers lower the gargantuan head of a colorful Kaws sculpture onto its body within the Brooklyn Museum, and felt empathetic for the downcast X-eyed character.
“They had wrapped the straps around the ears and they were lowering it, and I just felt my own ears hurt,” says Tsai the week before the exhibition’s opening. “This is a sculpture. It’s not a living being. But you just can’t help identifying with the characters.”
Kaws’ “Companion” figures — riffs on iconic characters like Mickey Mouse, the Michelin Man and Elmo — have become a defining aspect of his practice, implemented in larger-than-life sculptures and collectible vinyl figurines and plush dolls. In 2015, the Brooklyn Museum acquired the artist’s sculpture “Along the Way,” comprised of two wooden characters, each downcast with a Disney-esque gloved hand around the other’s back in a show of support.
That sculpture is installed in the museum lobby. Tsai recalls the reaction of three recent young visitors, who ran through the sculpture’s legs, laughing — playing. “And then one of the girls just stood in front of the sculpture and was like, ‘I’m scared,’” says Tsai, who joined the museum in 2007 as John and Barbara Vogelstein Curator of Contemporary Art. “And I felt like going over to her and saying, ‘Don’t be scared. They’re gentle giants.’ And that is just amazing to me — how we see them as surrogate humans, as stand-ins for us.”
That often unsettling emotional dichotomy — between childlike, playful imagery and bright colors paired with mournful expressions and Xs for eyes — is on full display at the museum, which has mounted a career survey of the Brooklyn-based artist in his home borough. After the museum’s 2015 sculpture acquisition, they began talking with Kaws — aka Brian Donnelly — about putting together an exhibition that touches on all aspects of his career.
The exhibition is organized chronologically, beginning with early graffiti sketches from his notebooks — some of which are being shown in the U.S. for the first time — and the advertising posters he began embellishing on the street in the ’90s while a student at SVA. Also on view are his character-driven paintings, large scale sculptures, vinyl figurines and plush dolls, as well as collaborations with other artists, such as the Campana brothers and fashion brands from Dior to Uniqlo. The exhibition culminates with the present; Donnelly created a series of paintings and new sculpture specifically for the show.
Tsai was surprised by how differently his work reads in person compared to images of the work on a screen. She was particularly struck by the finish on the show’s signature work, a hot pink sculpture with a Michelin-man physique. Although the material reads as plastic, it’s actually painted bronze. “I now understand his meticulous craftsmanship — which I knew he valued, but seeing it in person was just — I mean, it was kind of mind blowing,” she says.
Kaws is somewhat of a divisive artist, at least in the art world; he’s someone who has garnered huge popularity outside of the art establishment and branched out into product design. His work is collected by bold-faced names like Swizz Beatz, and in recent years has sizzled on the auction market — in 2019, one of his paintings riffing on the Simpsons (“The Kaws Album”) sold for more than $14 million.
Tsai hopes that the Brooklyn Museum show will offer visitors a new context in which to consider the artist’s work and discover aspects of his practice that are less flashy.
“Sometimes people pay more attention to the market, the apparatus around Brian’s work, and that somehow blinds them to the fact that he’s an artist who makes these amazing works,” she says, adding that placing his earliest graffiti works in conversation with his recent ones lets viewers see how the ideas Donnelly explored at the start of his career have evolved into different mediums. “How his origins as a graffiti writer, someone who worked in the streets, very much in a public realm, shaped the rest of his career,” Tsai says.
Donnelly’s jumbo-sized inflatable “Companion” sculptures, which he’s installed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and Virginia Beach, link to his early days as a street artist: the sculptures are large scale, temporary, and in outdoor urban spaces. “They really alter our perception of a setting, of an environment,” says Tsai of the inflatables, which the museum was unable to include in the exhibition due to size and helium regulations. “He is a remarkable painter, but painting and his studio practice is only one part of a much larger career.”
“Kaws: What Party” culminates in the museum’s 40-foot rotunda, which Tsai notes is the best setting for visitors to explore the augmented reality aspect of the exhibition. In collaboration with digital art platform Acute Arm, visitors will be able to interact with Kaws sculptures through their smartphones.
Like the museum’s initial sculpture acquisition, “Kaws: What Party” is already proving popular; weekend dates for the ticketed show are sold out until late March. But there’s plenty of time to make it out; the exhibition will be on view through September.
“You may be a mega fan, or you may only be familiar with one part of his practice,” says Tsai. “What I’m hoping that everyone takes away from the exhibition is an overall sense of the breadth of [Donnelly’s] practice.”
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