Later this month, on January 22, a major retrospective of the Brooklyn-based artist KAWS organized by the Fort Worth Modern closes and heads off to Shanghai. KAWS (real name: Brian Donnelly) is one of the most prominent street artists of his generation, and his work has been accepted into the upper echelons of the art-world establishment while maintaining its populist credibility. You may encounter KAWS’ prolific output in paintings or his museum-scale, brown-painted sculptures, or as mass-produced toy lines or limited-edition beer bottles.
The throughline in all this work is relatively consistent: pop-culture-tweaking figures inspired by animation—The Simpsons, The Smurfs, SpongeBob—presented in poses that suggest a variety of emotions that we don’t normally associate with cartoon characters. Dejection, depression, sadness. Fatigue. Taken as a whole—or close enough, as at the Modern’s retrospective—KAWS’ work can feel punchy and vibrant, but thin and one-dimensional. The repetition of his X-eyed creatures and neon-colored, deconstructed-Disney paintings only serves to diminish the effect of the branded iconography.
But it is a single piece that was installed at NorthPark Center in the fall that shows that, when it comes to an artist like KAWS, context is everything. Striding alongside a Mrs. Fields cookie counter and a Steve Madden retail shop, the piece—a gray-clad figure with a cartoonish, skull-like head holding two similarly styled children—resonates as a kind of bizarre, otherworldly totem. The sculpture (titled Clean Slate) contains the residue of contemporary consumerist angst, at once ironic and deadly sincere. It imparts a fleeting, if prescient, impression. It is also all the KAWS we need.