KAWS B. 1974 T.N.O.N. - I

KAWS and effect

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 49, Winter 2016

Page 16

The New York graffiti artist KAWS found his inspiration among Tokyo's pop-culture obsessives, as Matthew Wilcox discovers

"I started doing SpongeBob paintings for Pharrell. Then I started doing smaller paintings, which got much more abstract. SpongeBob was something I wanted to do because, graphically, I love the shapes."

KAWS – aka Brian Donnelly – is one of the most sought-after urban artists working today. In the early 2000s, the former graffiti artist begun reworking familiar TV and cartoon characters, such as the Simpsons, Mickey Mouse and, notably, SpongeBob SquarePants, the character who is sliced into strips of super-close-up painting in 'T. N. O. N. – I' , the work to be offered in the Modern and Contemporary sale in Hong Kong in November.

Donnelly was born in 1974 in New Jersey. He moved in the early 1990s into New York City, where he worked at night producing street art that augmented and played with advertising on bus shelters, phone booths and billboards.

Inspired by Claes Oldenburg and Takashi Murakami, KAWS' solo creativity has been punctuated by a series of superstar collaborations that tie together the apparently disparate worlds of urban art, Japanese otaku (geek) culture and American hip-hop. These have proved an inexhaustible well of inspiration, with the prolific artist producing designs for everything from t-shirts for Uniqlo to an album cover for Kanye West.

The kernel of this later burst of productivity lies in KAWS' first visit to Japan, after he graduated from New York's School of Visual Arts in 1996. He immersed himself in street art projects, while exploring Tokyo's myriad subcultures. Then in 1999 the artist went into partnership with the Japanese company Bounty Hunter to produce his first figurine: a vinyl Mickey Mouse with crosses for eyes.

The artist recently explained this development in Interview magazine, "I saw that these guys in Japan were collecting toys. I had friends that were spending $3,000 on a Star Wars prototype figure. They weren't collecting art, they were collecting toys. So I did those package paintings where I mass-produced the packaging around the painting, but the painting itself was done individually. That was my way of bridging the gap between those two worlds."

His recognition of a certain cartoon's graphic impact doesn't necessarily mean KAWS is a fan. "When I'm painting SpongeBob, I'm not thinking, 'Oh, I loved this episode.' Honestly, I've never even watched it." But his grasp of otaku culture is so certain that in 2006 he was able to open OriginalFake, a shop in Tokyo that sold only KAWS-abilia. "These guys are absolute connoisseurs of the stuff they collect. They can look at a toy and say, 'Oh, this is a '76. It came out in three versions.' It occurred to me that this kind of obsessive collecting isn't any different than art."

Matthew Wilcox is Deputy Editor of Bonhams Magazine.

Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art
Hong Kong
Monday 21 November at 4pm
Enquiries: Ingrid Dudek +852 2918 4321

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