Pop Culture Artist Kaws Celebrates New Exhibition In Brooklyn

Kaws discussed how having his exhibition during the Covid-19 pandemic allows viewers to really focus on the work more than anything.

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Brian Donnelly is the man behind Kaws, who is now considered one of the biggest pop culture phenomenon’s in the modern world. He’s acquired more than 3 million followers on Instagram, has had his work distributed globally through vinyl toys, fashion collaborations with big names like Christian Dior, and has a top auction sale of over $14 million.

However, Kaws told the media in the past that he wishes the headlines were more about his work, than the big names he’s worked with, which is why he was honestly excited to see how opening a retrospective in his hometown of Brooklyn during a global pandemic would play out, considering very few people could see it at a time, making the exhibition more about the viewer and the art. 

“I was asked if I was ‘disappointed this exhibition is during the pandemic’, as there’s all these regulations, but I think that could actually be a nice thing. It could potentially give more space to absorb the artwork. For me, it’s a way to put the work I’ve been making for the past 20 or 25 years, and put it in front of people, and they’ll take from it what they can,” said Donnelly.

“A lot of times, my work is only witnessed through print format, or online, so this is a great opportunity to put original works in front of people.”

Kaws has a studio in Williamsburg and otherwise blends in with your average resident. He wears sneakers and snapbacks almost everywhere, and when it comes to his work, he wants viewers to let it speak for itself. This new residency in Brooklyn is actually located in the first New York museum to acquire a work by Kaws, so it holds a very special place in his heart. 

“I hope this exhibition works to inspire the next generation of artists. It makes kids in Brooklyn know that there’s access, you can write your own script. It gets you beyond your 10-block radius.” Kaws wanted to include a lot of his earlier work in this exhibition so that his roots, and the pieces that he feels really inspired him to become an artist, are at the forefront of his exhibit, even if they aren’t considered “high art” in the eyes of society. 

“I’m happy I have sketch books and pictures of graffiti walls from the early 1990s in the show, so many people put that stuff away or say, ‘This is the point where I became a professional artist.’ But that whole time when I was painting walls and freight trains, that was painting. I was thinking about visual compositions in terms of color and scale, things I think about now.” For reference, Donnelly, who is now 46, grew up in Jersey City where he initially got into skateboarding which led to an exposure to graffiti. After a while he became a full-on graffiti artist and cultural mystery in 1990’s NYC. 

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“I’ve always felt public art was important. To have that direct communication with the general public is really amazing.”

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Eventually Kaws got into animation work and began designing toys, which led to him becoming a top seller of collectible vinyl toys in 1999. He then entered into the music sphere when he designed two album covers for Kanye West in 2008, which then led to more commercial work for the artist. Most of his recognizable pieces can be found in outdoor spaces. For example he created the Companion sculptures on a rooftop in China and then a Companion figure laying in the water in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong. 

According to media sources, “the Brooklyn exhibit starts with a life-sized pink sculpture of his Chum character, which is inspired by the Michelin Man, then goes into a room that shows his old notebooks, photos of his early graffiti tags. It segues into his 1990s ad-busting photos onto bus stop ads and shows a series of paintings featuring altered pop culture figures from The Simpsons, SpongeBob SquarePants, Snoopy and the Smurfs, all of which have X-ed out eyes.”

He has all of his figurines and toys from the past encased in glass display boxes, as well as his past designs for clothing brand collaborations with Vans and Comme des Garcons. His abstract paintings also aim to take center stage of the exhibition. In fact, one of his most groundbreaking pieces is themed around his experience getting Covid-19. The title of the whole exhibition is ‘What Party.’

“What Party was originally the title of a sculpture I made in 2018, as I liked the uncertainty of it, and while seeing the sculpture take form, the title stuck. The timing somehow seems perfect even though we started planning it well before the pandemic. It feels like an accomplishment to organize and open an exhibition under these circumstances. I’m very thankful to my studio and everyone at the museum for the work they put in during these challenging times.”