Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS, is an artist who refuses to be labeled. He began his career painting graffiti but he’s anything but a street artist. He designs and sells consumer products — toys, apparel — and yet his work has shown in museums across the country and around the globe.
To Andrea Karnes — chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth and the curator of KAWS: Where the End Starts, which opens there Oct. 20 — he’s the most successful cross-over artist of his generation (Takashi Murakami being his primary competition). Like his market-spanning predecessors Andy Warhol and Keith Haring, KAWS has sold his art at the high and low ends of the market, something Karnes says is extremely rare.
While KAWS has shown in museums throughout the country, the exhibit is the first major survey of his work. It will debut at the Modern and then travel to Yuz Museum in Shanghai, China, in March 2017.
Karnes has been watching Donnelly’s fine art career since 2010. She brought the young artist to Fort Worth in 2012 for a FOCUS exhibition, a series of small, focused shows that highlight artists who have either not been seen in the area or who are at the start of their careers in the art world.
Critics received the FOCUS show well, but it was its popular appeal that prompted the long-term display of KAWS’ enormous "Companion (Passing Through)" in front of the Fort Worth museum.
Donnelly began his career 20 years ago with street interventions, first in Jersey City, then New York, before achieving enough fame to travel to Japan, where he began collaborating with design and fashion brands on apparel and toys.
His work is characterized by an attention to line, color and striking graphics, as well as a strong visual language (double X’s are ubiquitous in his work) and the use of recognizable pop culture icons such as Mickey Mouse and the Michelin Man.
“I was initially drawn to the accessibility of his imagery, how it breaks all language and cultural barriers, and puts them in his own visual vocabulary,” Karnes says. “He uses these things we’re sort of instantly familiar with but then he puts his own twist on them.”
For decades — at least since Warhol — artists have been repurposing brands and advertising practices as fine art, but KAWS has always been different. Where Warhol’s Brillo Boxes or Claes Oldenburg’s oversized grocery items conveyed a sense of irony or apathy, KAWS’ deconstructed cartoon characters are often shown in positions of vulnerability. His Michelin Man and his signature mouse often appear shy, sad or embarrassed.
Part of KAWS' renown is due to his age and intuitive ability to self-promote. He’s a heavy and skilled social media user, and the melancholy recognizable in some of even his brightest, most vibrant work speaks to our lack of inhibition when it comes to expressing difficult or negative emotions publicly in the 21st century.
By the same token, KAWS' entire body of work seems designed to appeal to a generation of young people who distrust every institution, including the art world.
“He doesn’t understand the hierarchy of images set forth by the art world — why one thing is considered art and one thing is considered trash,” Karnes says. “What he’s always tried to do, starting with graffiti, is question that hierarchy, or make us as viewers question it.”
From the beginning, Donnelly has consciously used his art practice as a kind of advocacy; his work in design and on the street was intended always to invite people in, to show them they too can be a part of the art world, and on their terms. It was never about aggressive anti-establishment practices.
“[If] street artists want to buck the institution, they have to resolve that in their own minds,” Karnes says. “Brian hasn’t made anything in terms of graffiti since 2000. The only reason he engaged in the practice was he simply had no other way of getting his images in front of the art world.”
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That's a far cry from the position Donnelly occupies today as he moves between major museum shows, expensive commissioned works and high profile collaborations with artists such as Pharrell Williams.
KAWS' work is a hybrid of establishment-approved art such as pop art and street art, nestled within a framework of recognizable design-centered imagery he uses as a vehicle of communication to reach further into the mainstream than most artists today would dream possible.
KAWS: Where The End Starts will be on view at the Modern through Jan. 22 and will feature over 100 works, beginning with his early street interventions, moving into his consumer products and ending with the sculptures, abstract paintings and drawings he creates today.
The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (3200 Darnell St.) is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is $10. For more info, visit themodern.org.