Brooklyn-based former street artist KAWS is best known for work that blurs the line between fine art sculpture and really expensive collectible toys. Fans include Pharrell Williams, a big-time collector of what he calls “urban vinyl” (art-speak for “fancy toys for grownups”), and, now, the Brooklyn Museum. On June 10th, two 18-foot-tall wooden figures, resembling Mickey Mouses in existential despair, will take up residence in the museum’s lobby, alongside two graffiti-influenced paintings, in an exhibit called Along the Way.
KAWS, who was born Brian Donnelly in Jersey City and graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 1996, made a name for himself as a Pop artist after a lifelong graffiti habit and stints as an animator for Disney, past lives that influence his contemporary style. The two sculptures in Along the Way, the first KAWS pieces to be acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, are large-scale renditions of “Companion,” a recurring character in the artist’s work. Inspired by Mickey Mouse, the chameleonic Companion first appeared in Japan in 1999 as an action figure, and has since been made into a balloon for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade; a Moonman trophy for the MTV Music Video Awards; and a Boba Fett toy. To create Along the Way, the Williamsburg-based artist spent two years working with a foundry in the Netherlands, figuring out how to best enlarge the character. In this latest iteration, Companion is made from milled wooden planks and weighs in at six tons, lending a literal gravity to what’s until now been a more lighthearted 3-D cartoon. As Companion has become bigger and more serious as a character, so has KAWS as an artist.
“They are so endearing, if 18-foot figures can be endearing,” Eugenie Tsai, the museum’s managing curator of contemporary art, told The Wall Street Journal. But they also look a little bummed out, with heads bowed, X’s for eyes, and heads like stylized skulls and crossbones. “Are they shy? Are they ashamed?…There is something a little ominous about them,” Tsai said–perhaps because KAWS creates a subtle cognitive dissonance by endowing these eternally cheerful cartoon icons with dark human emotions.
KAWS: Along the Way is on view at the Brooklyn Museum from June 10–December 6, 2015.