The art world’s most visible populist, the artist Brian Donnelly, who is known as kaws, has long mined mass consumer culture and its proliferating platforms for his own ends. Taking a page from his teen-hood hero, the Pop artist Keith Haring, kaws works inside, outside, and well beyond the white cube, seeing art object and product, museum, shop, and street as part of his creative universe. In his hands, iconic cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and the Michelin Man are reimagined as Everymen you’re as likely to find in the form of a vinyl toy or a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon as you are to see in a gallery or museum. Meanwhile, his paintings, such as the cover image for this issue, nod to the zonked-out style of Peter Saul, with their exploding neon palette and graphic punch.
The 40-year-old New Jersey native got his start in the ’90s as a graffiti artist, tagging trains and billboards. After studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts, he began lifting ads from bus shelters, painting in figures, and then putting them back where he found them. In Japan in the late ’90s, eager to see his work in 3-D, he collaborated with the company Bounty Hunter to produce his first collectible toy: a gray vinyl Mickey Mouse figure with x-ed-out eyes who looks as if he’s in the throes of an existential crisis. (Companion, as he’s known, has been a recurring character in KAWS’s work.) Later on, KAWS designed streetwear for the hip brand a Bathing Ape. These days, with a résumé that includes a Kanye West album cover, commissions from Pharrell Williams, and a growing fan base of blue-chip collectors and museums, the shy, unassuming artist creates monumental sculptures in bronze and wood that he hopes “feel and look like the toys I started out making.”
His project for W plays with that shifting scale: KAWS placed tiny 3-D-printed action figures of Drake at the bulbous feet of prototype models for his gigantic “Companion” sculptures. (The double figure at far right is a model for Along the Way, an 18-foot-tall work currently at the Brooklyn Museum.) KAWS arranged and photographed the tableau atop a wooden shipping crate in his Williamsburg studio; the Drake figurine’s poses, he says, were inspired by the selfies he’s seen on social media of visitors interacting with his sculptures in public spaces. “I’ve always been interested in different ways of reaching an audience,” says the artist, whose paintings and sculptures will be on view at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in England, in February 2016, and will be followed by a retrospective at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, in Texas, next fall. “You go into a museum and the gift shop is full of products made around dead artists’ stuff, and usually it’s pretty badly done,” he observes. “And I just think, I want to do that while I’m alive, so if my stuff gets reproduced, it’ll be good.”
Artwork by KAWS; special thanks: Gentle Giant and 3D Imaging.