focus:KAWS at The Modern in Fort Worth

“focus:KAWS” is at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth through February 19, 2012.

KAWS was born Brian Donnelly and grew up in New Jersey, where he began his art career as a graffiti artist – defacing billboards and ads with his characteristic X marks.  He’s a BFA graduate of the School of Visual Arts in NYC and currently lives in Brooklyn.

I’m increasingly interested in street artists who move so fluidly between graffiti, illustration, fine art, and product design.  KAWS was obviously influenced by cartoon characters – probably grew up drawing them like most boys who are artists – but has taken iconic characters like Mickey Mouse and SpongeBob to another level with his unique signature twists. 

He also is one of a growing group of contemporary artists whose work is available for purchase in a variety of media, including fine art, highly collectable vinyl toys (ala KidRobot), snowboards, sneakers and clothing. KAWS is omnimedia.

How does his work show in a gallery?  I drove over to Fort Worth to see.

KAWS gallery work doesn’t have the immediacy or fresh expressiveness of graffiti or street art.  The works in “focus:KAWS” – two large fiberglass sculptures and a handful of paintings – are genuine pop art pieces in an updated but familiar sense.  His paintings would be at home in a room with Warhol or Lichtenstein or Indiana but they aren’t an homage to anyone – his style is uniquely his own.

The two sculptures in the show are hearty, substantial pieces.  They’re at least 8 feet tall, made of fiberglass, and posted as covered with “rubberized paint.”  I resisted the urge to touch when the guard staff wasn’t looking.

Accomplice dominates a small room that also features two paintings.  All three pieces are black against the white walls and light-colored flooring.  It’s pretty impactful.  I don’t immediately recognize what cartoon character this figure is based upon – it has rabbit ears but also the big, sort of lobular ears that KAWS adds on many of his figures.  KAWS often gives his figures a new mouth too – a sort of fluffy overbite, if you will.

Accomplice also sports a bolo tie.  His shoes, gloves, and eyes feature KAWS signature “X” – not as defacement but as an additional KAWS design element.

KAWS “black” paintings are technically tight and well executed.  He uses matte black, glossy black, and grays that are almost-black in a way I’ve never seen before.  The tone-on-tone color quality is playful in a completely unexpected way.  In the KAWS palette, gray is a beautiful color with many shades and tones – never muddy or dull.

These two paintings, On Time and Thirsty, are both diptychs, although it takes you a minute to notice this.  They are divided lengthwise into a 2/3 section and a 1/3 section but hung so tightly together they appear to be one canvas.  While the canvases relate to one another, they might also be interchangeable with other paintings.  It’s an interesting detail.

Companion (ORIGINALFAKE), 2011
Fiberglass and rubberized paint
96 x 48 x 36 inches
Edition 3/3, + 2 APs
Grey colorway
Courtesy of Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of KAWS STUDIO

How many of us wanted the “Visible Man” toy at some point in our childhoods?  Well, it seems a young KAWS did, too – here he’s created another 8 foot fiberglass/rubberized paint sculpture – this time a chubby Mickey Mouse who has gotten the KAWS treatment, titled Comparison (OriginalFake).  Mickey’s outer shell is half-missing to allow us to see his brain, eyeball, lung, heart, stomach, intestines, and arm and leg musculature all in pretty much anatomic correctness on one side of him.  Mickey is finished in shades of gray, white, and black.

All of the paintings in the show take pieces and parts of the KAWS reference characters and reconstruct them in new ways.   There is an installation of 21 small black tondo paintings, Black Spots, each with a piece of a cartoon face – a tongue there, a couple of teeth here, an eye with the KAWS “X” here.

Where the End Starts, 2011
Acrylic on canvas
84 x 120 inches
Courtesy of Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles
Photo courtesy of KAWS STUDIO

Finally, the centerpiece of the show – visible as you walk toward the show’s doorway – is Where the End Starts.  This is the most color piece in the show and stands out handsomely among the black and gray other pieces.  The bright colors in this painting buzz and vibrate against each other in a way that complements the chaos of the objects in the scene.  There are pieces of characters here – a rubbery hand, a couple teeth, a snout.  But the majority of the foreground subjects are crashing two-by-fours.  It reminds me of cartoon fight sequences with random objects exploding out of a furious cloud.  It’s a moment in time.

In the world of contemporary art, a small show that makes you want to learn more about the artist is a success in my book.  “focus:KAWS” did just that.