Collaborations between commercial branding, pop culture and art. KAWS is the moniker for American artist Brian Donnelly. Like Keith Haring, he got his start with public graffiti and has been producing engaging works of art for the past 30 years. His graffiti tag was KAWS. Brian says he liked the way the uppercase letters looked when combined. He adopted the name for his artistic work.

I quite enjoyed this exhibit and wanted to join in on the group hug of KAWS: FAMILY. They looked so squishy. But, as the direction states, don’t touch. And it was anything but squishy. Bronze and paint – 2021.

This is his first exhibit at the AGO. In it he explores the concept of family. Pictured here is the KAWS family – larger than life figures with various body textures. Note the “XX” eyes – that is his trademark design – like Kieth Haring’s lines.

His early work was graffiti writing in Jersey City, New Jersey and lower Manhattan, New York. He continued his pubic art after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. His philosophy – art should be accessible to everyone.

URGE (KUB3), 2020. Acrylic on canvas

One of the ways to make art more approachable for people is to use imagery we are familiar with. In the art of appropriation, KAWS has used a famous American family – the Simpsons.

He created a series entitled “Kimpsons”. During a trip to Tokyo, Japan, he noticed how much the Simpsons had infiltrated the Japanese culture.

“I found it weird how infused a cartoon could become in people’s lives…the impact it could have, compared to regular politics”

UNTITLED (KIMPSONS #2), 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 80 × 80 in. (203.2 × 203.2 cm).

The KSIMPSONS series has caught on with the art world. Ksimpsons. Untitled (Ksimpsons #1) sold for 7.4 million in 2019. This one was not part of the exhibit.

Later appropriations included The Smurfs, Sesame Street and SpongeBob Square Pants.

Another evolution that came out of the 1997 Tokyo trip was the collaboration on branding. He joined with various Japanese clothing manufacturers to create unique artistic fabrics. On exhibit is a series of running shoes between KAWS, Japanese fashion brand sacci and Nike.

Blazer Low (Neptune Blue) 2021. The chart is part of the preparatory process.

GOOD INTENTIONS, 2015, bronze and paint.

This figure’s name is COMPANION – a common statue in KAWS’ work. This piece represents the parent/child bond. If the figure looks vaguely like Mickey Mouse – big white gloves, button shorts, large boots – you wouldn’t be off.

These bronze pieces must have been a challenge to setup.

The adult hand on the back of the child imbues the work with a sense of protection in the face of a harsh world.

COMPANION, vinyl, 2020

Found this one laying face down. COMPANION originated as a toy for a Japanese company. It was small – like this one. KAWS wanted to create an action figure unlike any on the market. It’s about a metre in length. As a superhero, it reflects the times we are living in.

KAWS progressed from his graffiti years, perfecting his line drawing after graduating visual arts school. The work on this wall exemplifies his development in this area and playing with pop culture.

“KAWS time as a graffiti artist was foundational to what would become the ethos of his current practice: claiming public spaces, communicating with a broad audience, and self-promotion through creating”. Curator Julian Cox, AGO Deputy Director and Chief Curator

Untitled (Count Chocula) 2022, Untitled (Franken Berry) 2022

MAN’S BEST FRIEND, acrylic on paper, 2014

I’ve had a soft spot for Snoopy (Peanuts) for a long time. So it was a pleasant surprise to see this very large piece.

“I think Peanuts is part of being a kid in America. Whether it’s the Great Pumpkin on Halloween or just seeing a different cartoon in the paper, it’s sort of around everywhere.” KAWS

Instead of a full size Snoopy, we get 50 fragments, including the “X”. The forms extend beyond the piece to the wall behind.

TAKE, bronze and paint, 2019

This is BFF holding COMPANION – introduced into the family in 2016. The bulging eyes and blue colour suggest Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster – another fine line appropriation.

ORANGE BOX, acrylic on canvas, 2023

For the 50th anniversary of Warhol’d soup can, the Andy Warhol Foundation collaborated with the Campbell’s Soup company to release a limited edition print of the original soup can.

Similarly, KAWS collaborated with General Mills to produce to art works for Reese’s Puggs – Orange Box and Blue Box. These were a limited release.

However he also worked with Acute Art to produce a game. Players broke pieces of Reese’s Puffs that were falling from the sky to save COMPANION.

Note that there is a new augmented reality game from KAWS and Acute Art as part of this exhibition.

Alright, look at these two pieces:

The first one is KAWS couch – GANG SOFA; plush toys, stainless steel, bronze – 2019

The second is a The Great Flood, Norval Morriseau, 1975

The Great Flood hangs by the entrance to KAWS. Now, I saw a relationship between these two, even though they are very opposite. For me, they belong together.

Either Morriseau was channeling his inner Jim Henson or there is a Muppets episode of them escaping on a life raft.

The KAWS exhibit continued in two other galleries but my back pain was starting to develop so I had to leave. I’ll go back and finish it next week.

It is on until March 31st.

Meanwhile, the AGO will be celebrating Black History Month in February and looking forward to what they will offer.