KAWS: Where the End Starts is an exhibition spanning over twenty years of Brooklyn based artist KAWS’ expansive and media-defying career. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth presents KAWS, but on a scale just as gargantuan as his iconic fibreglass and aluminium sculptures.
As a teenager growing up in New Jersey, KAWS has always been drawn to the explosive visual language and social aspect of graffiti. While the name KAWS is instantly recognisable, it began as his graffiti tag and was utilised as his first visual device. From this he developed his own iconography; using the symbolism of skulls and cross-bone heads and x’s for eyes to create characters like Companion, Chum, and Accomplice that have become constant signatures throughout his career.
One of the defining characteristics of KAWS work is his successful usage of cartoon language to express deeply emotional themes and ideologies. His characters are simultaneously playful and isolated, lovable and foreboding - This clever contradiction was first eaten up by Japanese Otaku Culture, and eventually turned into collectible vinyl toys, and high-end fashion collaborations.
In 2008, ten years after their inception, these characters exploded from 6-inch toys and into monumental sculptures ranging from 6-30 feet coming in colourful variations of fibreglass and aluminium. Of the massive shift in the scale of his work, KAWS has said, “I have explored this idea of scale and materials in my work, really from the start, so by the time I made my first sculpture, I wanted it to look just like the vinyl toys I had already been making. I wanted to see where that puts peoples’ perspectives”
We sit down with Andrea Karns, chief curator at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth - who worked closely with KAWS on creating KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS - an exhibition that encompasses the entirety of his career, and featuring over 100 of his works ranging from paintings, drawings, sculpture, graffiti, and the archetypal vinyl toys that have garnered their own cult following.
KAWS: Where the End Starts, is the artist’s third exhibition in the Modern Art Museum at Fort Worth. In what ways does this exhibition shed a new light on KAWS prolific career?
KAWS’ first exhibition here at the Modern, back in 2011, was small scale. In 2013, we only exhibited one piece from his repertoire - I think of this as more of a special project than an exhibition in the formal sense. We always knew that we wanted to bring him back on a grand scale, it was simply a matter of when. Since this year marks two decades of his work, it seemed like the perfect moment to celebrate him and his prolific and formally adept career.
Companion, Chum, and Accomplice are some of KAWS most instantly recognisable characters. How do these animated characters illustrate his own personal perspectives and views on the human condition?
While only KAWS knows exactly the meanings behind these characters, I can tell you that his characters have an autobiographical leaning, and they also reflect attitudes and emotions that are universally understood as part of being human.
Why do you think KAWS shifted his art from Graffiti to a deep scrutiny of advertising — and eventually to working with the massive fibreglass sculptures that have become his signature?
I think KAWS has always wanted to work on all levels of the market, but he did not have the means, or a clear understanding of how to find his way into fine art when he first began as a young graffiti artist. It took some time for him to build his visual vocabulary, refine his painting chops, become connected to designers who wanted to collaborate, and to create monumental sculpture.
KAWS works in the tradition of Pop Art, but blurs the lines between art, design, fashion, and animation. In what ways has he become an icon of pop culture.
I would say KAWS is an icon in the same way that artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring are pop icons — they too created works that had mass appeal, and that could be seen through multiple avenues of commerce. In another way, their images, like KAWS, made their way to a broader audience. For KAWS, this happens because his imagery speaks to us all on a human level, and on a cartoon level; and this accessibility makes us comfortable and more engaged with him.
Interview by Hannah Tan