Pop Up: KAWS at Galerie Perrotin New York and Mary Boone Gallery
Check this cause for excitement across NYC. Despite KAWS' global presence — including regular exhibitions in Tokyo and Hong Kong, plus an iconic float in the 2012 Thanksgiving Day parade and a redesign of the MTV VMA Moonman — the Brooklyn-based artist and designer hasn't had a proper solo exhibition locally in years. He's back in a big-time way, commanding both Mary Boone Gallery's downtown space and Galerie Perrotin's recently opened Manhattan base. — Brian Fee, Austin contributor
The artist born Brian Connelly, Jersey City son and Williamsburg resident, has an decade-long indelible mark on the art-world beyond his early graffiti years. His concurrent exhibition comes in two flavors: candy-colorful paintings on tricked-out canvases at Perrotin and monumental wood sculptures at Mary Boone, plus a few circular paintings to sweeten the deal. KAWS redrew his sketches in Adobe Illustrator — "Frankenstein"-ing them together, as he commented in a recent ARTINFO interview, into deliriously complex, abstract arrangements — and projected the results onto canvas before painting them. Photographs belie their three-dimensional complexity. ANOTHER GENERATION LOST has a roughly cat-like figure (throwing a jubilant thumbs-up gesture), yet inside is a whole nebula of ideas: the polywog eyes conflict with the red-orange Smurf-like character stepping into frame, and behind the nexus of chevron tendrils (in complimentary tones à la Bridget Riley) is what appears to be a grimacing, toothy mouth. PASS THE BLAME, occupying two canvases and an entire gallery wall (plus echoing Perrotin's exhibition title) is the silhouette of an adult (or teen?) leaning in on a balking youth, their bodies consumed by a cloud of multicolored soapsuds and futuristic diagonals (think late-period Al Held). My first instinct was "drugs", but KAWS could be commenting on something deeper and arguably more widespread: social media and infotainment overload.
KAWS “PASS THE BLAME” installation view, Galerie Perrotin, New York, November 2 – December 21, 2013. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, New York.
KAWS | PASS THE BLAME, 2013, acrylic on canvas, (left) 120 x 120 x 1 3/4”; (right) 90 x 76 x 1 3/4”. Photo: Farzad Owrang. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, New York.
What's in the foreground and what's in the background? This array is a development from KAWS' exhibition at Kaikai Kiki Gallery earlier this year, where that melange of shadowy body parts is endlessly abstracted by their shaped canvases here. SHOULD I BE ATTACKING has a vaguely Snoopy outline, but the interior is all X'd eyes (squinting or glaring) and rubbery mouths. NOBODY is the rare self-explanatory title — it's all face, no body — yet that violet-nostriled nose poking into the frame seems detached from the primary figure. KAWS works in the hypercolored palette of Kaikai Kiki founder and Japanese pop torchbearer Takashi Murakami, but while Murakami's classic works (eyeballs, flowers, mushroom clouds) skew toward a sleek industrial sheen, KAWS' matte, level brightness further emphasizes his aerosol background. This is especially evident in the X's and linework, as if they were applied just so by a wide-angle nozzle instead of delicately, deliberately painted on with acrylic.
KAWS | SHOULD I BE ATTACKING, 2013, acrylic on canvas over panel, 72 x 54 x 1 3/4”. Photo: Farzad Owrang. Courtesy Galerie Perrotin, New York.
KAWS installation view. Courtesy: Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
Several of KAWS' tondo (i.e. circular) paintings appeared in Tokyo, but they've been supersized (and their respective, closely-cropped subjects intensified) at Mary Boone. Despite being little more than an assortment of spherical and ovoid forms, the very red GOING AS FRIENDS gawks from across the gallery, while neighbors AFTERNOON DELIGHT and TRANSITIVE PROPERTY act as superpowered screen-grabs — the former a clutching hand, the latter either a zoomed-in X'd eyeball or a tilted, color-inverted Pac-Man. Relegated to the smaller back gallery, this trio asserts its presence. Though leaving the main gallery open, with its elevated skylit ceiling, provides just enough space to take in KAWS' ginormous wood sculptures. AT THIS TIME acts as a reluctant pop culture saint: bathed in a mix of spotlights and natural light across its organic paneled surface, KAWS' familiar COMPANION hides its eyes in fear or shame, as throngs of gallery visitors find just the right spot for an Instagram. Its proximity to the pair ALONG THE WAY creates an interesting dialogue absent from KAWS' singular, mournful COMPANIONs (like at The Standard) — I would even hasten the admittedly oddball guess that they're playing a game of hide-and-seek. What's important here is the presence of dual meanings throughout KAWS' oeuvre, of the ostensibly lighthearted cartoony figures harboring darker, mature undertones.
KAWS | (left) ALONG THE WAY, 2013, wood, 216” x 176” x 120”. (right) AT THIS TIME, 2013, wood, 226” x 102” x 85”. Courtesy: Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
I remember the first time I read about KAWS, in URB magazine (the seminal SoCal bible for all things techno/hip-hop, plus street art and fashion) over 15 years ago. The mini article highlighted his manipulation of billboard models with that signature COMPANION soft-skull tag, a grayscale creature familiar yet edgy. Now look at him. I suggest arriving early: both galleries were bustling when I visited on midweek "off-days", and expect a mixed crowd — hoodied youths with notebooks, Museum Mile patrons in furs, but everyone with smartphone cameras at the ready.
KAWS | GOING AS FRIENDS, 2013, acrylic on canvas, 96” Ø. Photo: Farzad Owrang. Courtesy: Mary Boone Gallery, New York.
KAWS was born in 1974 in Jersey City, New Jersey, and is based in Brooklyn, New York City. Since receiving his BFA from Manhattan's School of Visual Arts in 1996, he has continued to refine his transformations of icons of popular culture into characters that have in their own right become instantly recognizable. Concurrent with the shows at Galerie Perrotin New York and Mary Boone Gallery, KAWS has new work on view at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, Kansas. Both New York gallery exhibitions continue through December 21.
Brian Fee is an art punk based currently in Austin, TX, but he can usually be found in New York, Tokyo, or Berlin, depending on the art season.