Can there be anyone yet to encounter these colourful little figures with segmented ears and Xs instead of eyes?
Yes, you know the ones I mean: hybrid post-Disneyesque creatures dressed in gloves and shoes. You might have seen them listed among the best-selling art objects in reports on auctions. Or heard a major exhibition of these brightly coloured sculptures being discussed – enthusiastically and slightly snobbishly – by friends who keep a close eye on events in the art world. Or glimpsed them wearing price tags with impressive tails of zeros in the windows of exclusive streetwear boutiques. Or come across them in articles on the interior design of apartments owned by celebrities who keep a dedicated room for a collection of these creatures. You might even have seen something similar gathering dust in kiosks at transport hubs in remote parts of the city or, even more absurdly, installed in the entrance to a children’s shop.
In the latter case what you saw was probably an imitation, replica, or, to use the term popularized by today’s new morality, a ‘tribute’ to the famous characters made by Brian Donnelly, who is better known by his creative moniker, KAWS.
So that's where I saw it
It’s not that important, though, whether what you saw was an original object by KAWS or a fake. Or whether you follow Donnelly’s new releases on Hypebeast or read criticism of him in Artnewspaper.
Whatever corner of the information world you hang out in, images created by Donnelly will have printed – and will continue to print – themselves on your retina.
Whether you want it or not.
Brian Donnelly was one of the first artists to successfully pursue a strategy of conquering numerous different fields with his art product. By combining commercial and figurative art and involving in his projects external organizations that are contiguous with the art world or, on the contrary, have nothing to do with it, he produces a new mass culture in which there is minimal distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ and in which accessibility for various audiences is maximized.
If you dig down into the comments on Youtube, you can find some interesting things. For instance, the following remark – which, though brief and perceptive, fails to unpack what is of greatest interest: ‘somehow’.
This ‘somehow’ is what I want to look at more closely.
When you talk about KAWS, it’s easy to waste reams of words discussing the depth of his works – in ham-fisted attempts to explain his unceasingly growing popularity with the mass public and the fresh interest he stirs up among galleries and museums. Art institutions, it seems, failed to anticipate that FOMO could affect them too – but then, what wouldn’t you do to attract a new audience to your museum? You can, of course, criticize Donnelly categorically for his superficial concepts and exploitation of money-grubbing tactics, thus casting doubt on whether KAWS can really be categorized as art.
An alternative approach, however, is to examine Donnelly’s creative career in a spirit of curiosity and investigate how his popularity has evolved as a manifestation of this new, contradictory ‘superflat’ culture. In other words, as an example of a new type of artist whose works satisfy the needs of a huge section of the public that is interested in art but not yet sated with strange objects and philosophical discussions of contemporary art. And as a new mechanism for effective interaction with both a wide audience and conservative institutions.
Just get on with it and tell us about him
Brian Donnelly was born in 1974 in New Jersey, where he attended St Anthony High School. He began drawing when he was a teenager.
At the beginning of the 1990s roller-skating and skateboarding brought him into contact with a community of New York street artists. His mentors were Futura, Zephyr, and Lee Quinones. He took up graffiti, experimented with mass-culture cartoon images, and tried his hand at creating font compositions in an old-school style.
One of these compositions, four random letters that look good when placed together as a conjunction of shapes, appeared on the roof of a building directly opposite the high school he attended.
Donnelly placed his tag in the most conspicuous spot: he already sensed that how objects are placed is crucial to making their author recognizable. As a native New Yorker, he had seen how visual art works on the streets. So his use of techniques employed by graffiti artists was in effect a way of getting his moniker known. The idea was to first spread his name among the community of fellow street artists and then popularize it among the general public.
Conspiracy theorists and people who like speculating about extra layers of meanings will be disappointed, but the word KAWS is not an enigmatic abbreviation. There are no hidden meanings here: it’s just that Donnelly liked the aesthetic look of these symbols when they are placed together.
In 1996 Donnelly graduated with a BA in illustration from New York’s School of Visual Arts.
After graduation he worked for a time as a freelance animator at Jumbo Pictures, an animation studio that collaborated with Disney. Backgrounds and characters drawn by Donnelly can be found in the cartoon series 101 Dalmatians, Doug, and Daria (a sitcom for teenagers).
Tag for tag
Donnelly began seriously ‘blitzing’ the streets in 1997. He created numerous rhythmic variations of his tag – elegant and ‘smooth’ compared with most street signatures.
There are different ways to leave one’s autograph in urban spaces – using aerosol paints, thick marker pens, templates, or stickers. All these materials create an interaction with the base on which the image is placed, and if the artist is inventive, likewise in some way with the image’s setting. Donnelly came up with a way of spreading his art on the streets using the visual elements which these streets already have in abundance – posters on billboards, in telephone booths, and at bus stops.
These urban interventions – so-called ‘subvertisements’ – were possible because Donnelly had an acquaintance who worked in advertising and had direct access to the structures containing the advertisements. An urban legend has it that the interventions were sponsored by the well-known New York street artist Barry McGee. Donnelly would open up the billboards at night, remove the posters, add to them drawings of his own fantasy creatures, and in the morning replace the original poster with the new object – a work of street art made by combining a deconstructed piece of advertising with elements of Donnelly’s signature style.
Donnelly literally integrated the characters he created with the advertisements and the way the space of the advertisement worked to draw people in. Advertising campaigns by brands such as Calvin Klein, Marlboro, Guess, and DKNY began to be populated with creatures with fluid, plastic bodies and skull-like heads with crossed bones protruding from them. (He subsequently merged the pair of plump cartoon-like bones sticking out on either side of the head to form a single element resembling a segmented, undulating ear.)
Amorphous spirits with crosses instead of eyes floated in the space of the posters – like good ghosts that know not what they do. They looked out from behind fashion models, embracing and entwining the latter’s bodies. Or, on the contrary, they shamelessly stole the limelight, expelling and replacing the well-known faces entirely.
These interventions were executed with such technical virtuosity and professionalism that it was impossible to make out any difference between the printed images underneath and the curving forms drawn on top of the images. Passers-by glancing at the posters might not stop immediately but, a second later, some quality in what they had seen out of the corner of their eye would begin to trouble their thoughts: ‘What was that? That’s a strange kind of advertisement…’
Donnelly has admitted in interviews that he initially desecrated advertisements just for fun’s sake. This was not, he has said, political or anti-capitalist activism. But as his acts of artistic rebellion got more and more response, he began intervening deliberately, albeit with his characteristic lack of aggression:
And it worked. The creative vandalism he wreaked on advertising billboards was noticed and drew a positive response from representatives of the brands concerned. Incidentally, many of the posters enhanced by Donnelly were stolen by enthusiasts who realized that anything and everything he doodled was likely to increase in value over time. And they were right. It is they we must thank for the fact that KAWS’ earliest public works are today changing hands on the art market. For many art critics Donnelly’s raids on advertising posters remain the most talented, authentic, and inspiring gesture of self-expression. Some grant the name of art only to this period in his creative career.
For Donnelly himself this was, at the very least, an eye-catching way to announce KAWS’ arrival on the scene. But it may in fact have been the turning point which shaped the trajectory of his subsequent development.
The very thing
Donnelly’s ‘wrong advertising’ became increasingly popular all over the world. This kind of self-organized collaboration between an artist and a company, it turned out, is only to the latter’s advantage. Demand for integration of a company in KAWS’ signature style grew: brands started approaching Donnelly themselves. Soon the geography of locations for new projects spread beyond the United States. Donnelly found himself travelling frequently for his work – to Paris, London, Germany, and Japan. It was his trip to Japan that defined the look of the character we today know as Companion.
Donnelly came into contact with otaku, the Japanese subculture that involves a fanatical enthusiasm for, or even obsession with, anime or manga. Observing the almost genetic predisposition of the Japanese to attentive and dedicated collecting, Donnelly decided to turn the creatures he was drawing into collector’s items – vinyl statuettes that could appeal to Japanese buyers. The Japanese company Bounty Hunter, which started out by making souvenirs based on themes from Star Wars, opportunely expressed its admiration for Donnelly’s distinctive style and announced its desire to work with him.
1999 saw the first commercial edition of Companion: a limited edition, of course.
The spermatazoidal ghosts on the advertisements evolved into a plastic, clown-like, achromatic variation on Mickey Mouse as seen in the black-and-white cartoon Steamboat Willie (1928). This creature is dressed in funny pantaloons with large buttons and shoes and gloves on his legs (paws?). The gloves now also have crosses on them.
Many contemporary artists exploit Disney’s legacy in a similar way. Some nostalgically refer to characters from their childhood that they remember for their bright colours and distinctive voices. What we get in this case is something extremely bright in flaring neon with sonorous peals of fluorescent colours, as if someone has turned up the colour-saturation control too high in Photoshop. Think of the expressive paintings of the American artist Katherine Bernhardt with their references to the Pink Panther.
Others create images that are the opposite of the original cartoons: they turn Disney’s vivacious little animals into creepy caricatures. The emphasis is on the lack of naturalness and on the hypertrophied animation of the bright spots twitching on the screen. This is an enticing but potentially toxic attractiveness that is impossible to resist, especially when you’re not yet ten years old. Such is the critical reading of cartoons seen in works by the artist Ryan Travis Christian.
Why is that this method has brought KAWS notably more popularity than his colleagues? Donnelly’s Companion figure combines the wardrobe of the most famous character in Disney’s cast with the rebellious spirit of street culture expressed in the sweeping manner in which he draws his figures. Only in the more stylish, attractive, and conceptually clear familiar form of a sculptural toy.
The word ‘drop’ had yet to become part of the jargon, but today we would say that KAWS and Bounty Hunter’s first drop of 500 figures sold out. Donnelly’s colleagues and friends took a dim view of his decision to work with Japanese pop art and produce formulaic but commercially successful luxury objects – before him, no one from the street-art community had ever taken this route. Nevertheless, Companion went down well with the Japanese market and began notching up sales at the best venues, including niche shops selling the just-emerging ‘super-flat’ culture.
Celebrities and western collectors started showing an interest in the vinyl toys with their allusions to familiar images from children’s cartoons.
In 1999 Companions were shown as a solo exhibition at Colette, a concept store in Paris. Presentations of Donnelly’s art objects in European fashion boutiques such as Colette, where they shared the same display windows as so-called ‘pieces of art’ by Comme des Garcons or Louis Vuitton, and in galleries and boutiques in Tokyo were the launch pad from which his objects made their way into the collections owned by famous hip-hop artists, celebrities, or simply very trendy and well-off people for whom a separate home for one’s trainers is the norm. If you have a room for your trainers, why not have one for your collection of vinyl sculptures as well? Especially since Donnelly clearly had no intention of limiting himself to creating interpretations of just one form.
The characters evolve into adult statues <strong> </strong>
As the characters evolved, the tubby upright Companion was followed by new faces. One branch of development saw the grey-headed creature merging with Bugs Bunny, the famous cartoon rabbit created by the director Tex Avery and the animator Robert McKimson at Warner Brothers.
Donnelly called his new hybrid character ‘Accomplice’. Accomplice borrowed from his cartoon fellow the latter’s rabbit costume with all its attendant attributes – the childish-pink colour, pointy ears, and pretty ribbon around his neck. Judging by photo reports from the KAWS exhibition, this Brobdingnagian rabbit places extreme requirements in terms of ceiling height on the spaces in which it is exhibited and would probably look more natural as a piece of environmental art somewhere in the open air. In its natural habitat, so to speak.
Incidentally, on the subject of open air and dimensions: some Companions by KAWS have been scaled up to the size of gigantic installations. These have been placed in busy urban locations or, on the contrary, in remote sites amidst unspoilt nature.
A collaboration with the company AllRightsReserved turned Donnelly’s enormous sculptures into the series KAWS: HOLIDAY. The first presentation of this obsession with giganticism took place in Taipei, where a massive, inflated Companion sat observing the square in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The next, 121-foot-high iteration swam unhurriedly on its back in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. Another watched the sun come up near the foot of Mount Fuji. The fourth, embracing a miniature copy of itself, lay on a football pitch next to Marina Bay in Singapore. And a creature resembling Minnie Mouse took to the air to float above the fields near Bristol in Great Britain.
Companion has also, incidentally, travelled beyond the Earth’s atmosphere – to a distance of 41.5 kilometres, dressed in a metallic space suit. At a time when all galleries and exhibition spaces on Earth were closed for the duration of the pandemic restrictions, this astronaut Companion studied space from a meteorological sounding balloon.
The best-crafted, most skilfully executed, and most cleverly integrated Companions were displayed on the hilly terrain of a park in Yorkshire. It was as if these grandiose, gloomily playful figures had been scattered over the well-groomed valleys of Gibbs Farm – an open-air sculpture museum where pieces by Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Anish Kapoor, among others, can be observed in various parts of the landscape.
At Yorkshire Sculpture Park gigantic wooden sculptures created by Donnelly took on the traits of yet another Disney character – Pinocchio. Here the nose has already begun growing on the character’s eyeless skull; his walk-tall confidence has shrunk inside him. Together, this guiltily stooping symbiosis of Minnie Mouse and the wooden boy; the separately standing, glum, classic Companions; and paired sculptures lost in their own thoughts formed a single land-art ensemble, all the more impressive due to the languid and unhurried English nature that surrounded them.
In fact, Donnelly’s Companions always emanate a kind of tense detachment.
This is so even when Donnelly chooses bright neon colours for one of his figures or dresses them in the amusing costumes worn by monsters in Sesame Street. His Companions with a hard plastic skin that imitates Elmo’s scarlet fur or Cookie Monster’s ultramarine hair at first sight seem comfortably familiar and full of joy of life. Hardly surprising, then, that Donnelly chose this variation of his character for his BFF (Best Friends Forever) series: these figures radiate a childish simplicity and openness, a genuine goodness, a spirit of brotherhood and unity.
The Companion carrying in its arms a BFF that is limp from exhaustion inevitably makes us think of Michelangelo’s Pietà – a reminder of humanity and selfless care for others. To stand next to this double sculpture is excellent therapy: the riot of colours and comfortably pressing, human-scale mass drive away existential loneliness even if only for a moment.
However, if you hang around next to this ‘best friend’ for long, its initial colourful welcome gives way to indifference and alienation. The cross eyes, like spots hacked out on a gridded surface, convey nothing to the external environment. It’s not that they are vacant: they’re full of internal reflexion. Nor is their gaze directed nowhere: they’re simply not looking at you. They imitate involvement but at the same time are focussed deep inside themselves. They contain a natural desire to communicate and interact – but even when realizing this need, they continue to feel loneliness and a sense of loss. And we do too.
It was obviously KAWS’ plan to continue squeezing sympathy and empathy from his audience. Why else would he have created Resting Place, a version of his Companion with half of its body flayed to reveal the flesh and organs underneath?
These monotone creatures reclining in relaxed postures allow us to observe, without any embarrassment (or, to be more precise, without emotion of any kind), their internal organs, which are in fluorescent colours. Is this a continuation of the cartoon stylization of the aesthetic of death? An evolution from crosses instead of eyes to deep exposure of the flesh – which seems not entirely lifeless due to its neon colouring? Or is Donnelly flirting with his young audience – with the subcultural fringe raised on animated films by Tim Burton, the nihilistically cynical Doctor House, and the senselessly cruel Final Destination? Whatever the case, the unsophisticated scalping of these figures raises more questions regarding the effectiveness of this technique than it provides reasons to reflect on the metaphor of death.
The same cannot be said of the version of Companion created in 2020, whose internal tension is expressed in each curve of its body. Separated, which came into the world at the height of the pandemic, reflects the emotional state that was probably experienced by everyone at the time.
Isolation from the outside world confronted all of us with what was hiding inside: consciousness of our own fundamental loneliness. The ‘separated’ Companion sits on the ground, its face concealed by its joined palms, while its body is convulsed by a spasm of tension and denial. This pose is an automatic reaction to the new reality in which social atomization and loss have become facts of our daily lives. A transitory quotidian melancholy has developed into a profound despair, depression – an inability and reluctance to adapt to the new present and to an absent future. The sculpture’s cartoon exterior, which contrasts with the character’s oppressed mood, makes it particularly harrowing for us to observe how Companion is coping with this traumatic experience.
You might have thought that scepticism regarding KAWS’ work and attempts to cancel him would slow down following this ‘not-so-poppy’ statement. But the art scene has taken Donnelly’s demonstration of empathy – coupled with commercial success – as an opportunistic, cold-blooded updating of his product, a way of matching his narrative tone to the global context.
As if Donnelly had ever had difficulty selling his objects over his 25-year career. At the same time, let’s not forget that KAWS’ universe includes not just Companions but a whole cast of other characters, whose regular appearances ensure their creator’s name is never forgotten by the art market.
One of these characters is Chum. If you spent your childhood waiting for your dad’s car to be seen to at the tyre-fitting service, then you’ll have no trouble recognizing in Chum’s plump silhouette the good old Michelin Man (Bibendum). His body is assembled from white tyres of different diameters, stacked like the segments of a child’s toy pyramid.
The name ‘Bibendum’ refers to the Latin expression with which Horace begins his ode ‘Nunc est bibendum’ (‘Now is the time to drink!’). In Michelin’s advertising Bibendum was portrayed as a cheerful, vivacious plutocrat. At any rate, this figure radiated confidence and a sense of reliability through its dynamic, firm posture (compared with the flat and ‘tired’ tyres produced by Michelin’s rivals).
In 2020 KAWS used this easily recognizable trademark to create an image with which viewers can empathize. While stripping the original character of its welcoming smile and kind and invigorating gaze, Donnelly also changed the plasticism of its body: the shoulders are hunched; the arms hang limply at its sides; and the head looks slightly downwards. Chum is Bibendum without the latter’s vital energy. He is worn out and disappointed by the new reality with its instability and indeterminacy. He can become even more of a ‘close friend’ than Companion; he is precisely a ‘chum’.
Let’s go back to the roots of all this: to Bendy, the cartoon slug with a skull-like head which wrapped itself around the bodies of models in Donnelly’s interventions in street posters.
Nine years later, in 2013, nostalgia for the cult character was transformed into a series of large bronze sculptures wrapped around the laconic silhouette of Gumby – another popular character from old-school plasticene cartoons. The intertwining of the two characters functions as a material expression of the synergy of two generations of animation and clearly shows the freedom with which KAWS erases the boundary between art and non-art.
Critics continue to find Donnelly’s ‘superflat’ cultural alloy more painful than does Donnelly himself.
Production of ‘KAWSness’ resembles a looped game where the objective is to find one’s bearings among an endless series of references: references to mass culture (which is a recycling of already existing references), references to oneself as part of this mass culture, references to references, and so on and on. Donnelly normalizes this principle of assimilation, stylization, and recycling. He continues to make active use of this technique of mixing and crossing in collaborative projects.
An example is the recent launch of Kachamukku, an art toy created in collaboration with the popular Japanese TV show Hirake!Ponkikki. Kachamukku is a hybrid creature that literally glues together, in addition to recognizable elements of ‘KAWS-ness’, fragments of characters from the Japanese equivalent of Sesame Street: Mukku, covered with glowing-red fur, and Gachapin, a green dinosaur with a harmless grin.
Art toys are a part of Donnelly’s creative work that comes in for heavy criticism. Donnelly, though, feels no embarrassment in making these toys in large numbers (although the fact that the ‘drops’ are in limited editions is intended to create the opposite impression). This is a tactic which has proved successful ever since Donnelly worked with NIGO and his brand BAPE – another giant in the collaboration business which has brought fame to objects made by KAWS.
On this important collaboration, among others, and on how not to walk away from the easel while enjoying worldwide commercial success, see