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Re-imagining the cartoon world: KAWS

KAWS is masterful in his ability to communicate through accessible visual imagery without imposing a reaction on his viewers.

Following the success of our LookingforU series on Instagram, Unit London are proud to present U-Greats, our celebration of modern masters of visual art, from across the globe, who have preceded and inspired the next generation of emerging creative talent. U-Greats will cast a weekly spotlight on iconic creators who, over time, have informed and inspired both our represented artists and the team here at Unit London.

 This week we present to you KAWS.

 KAWS is an international cultural phenomenon with a skill-set which extends far beyond the constraints of the art world. Famously medium-agnostic, KAWS’ enormous body of work straddles both the art and design worlds to include street art, product design, toy making and sculpture. His instantly recognisable aesthetic has earned him a loyal and devoted global following over the last twenty-five years.

 KAWS, Companion (Passing Through), 2010

 Whether on canvas, a wall or through a range of products, KAWS is masterful in his ability to communicate through accessible visual imagery without imposing a reaction on his viewers. Employing a graphically bold, cartoon-like colour palette and masterful linework, KAWS presents a selection of affable yet melancholy set of characters with X-ed out eyes and exaggerated features. Appealing to an audience from multiple generations, popular cartoon characters are frequently the subject of his work and overtime KAWS has reimagined the likes of Snoopy, the Simpsons and Spongebob Squarepants. With over a million followers on Instagram, KAWS is active in his honest engagement with his fans, stating to Vogue, ‘I think it’s a nice way for people to get to know you. That’s the thing I do like about Instagram — it is my direct portal. I go from my home to my studio and back home, and that’s the routine. I kind of live in a bubble. When I started looking at contemporary artists in the mid-’90s, there was a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of personas built around guarding themselves, and I just knew I didn’t want to be that. I want to be more candid and more honest about what I do. For me, I think it’s better to be this way, throwing little pieces of work out there’.

Together with Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, KAWS has become an integral part of the contemporary Pop contingent.

As both students and rebels they have absorbed and learnt lessons from historical Pop art, yet have aptly revised the movement in light of contemporary shifts in society. No longer just lifting familiar objects and reinterpreting them, KAWS’ familiar characters have become separate entities entirely, created to challenge and conquer the worlds of commerce and fine art.

  KAWS, Perils, 2008

Born Brian Donnelly in New Jersey (1974), and believing throughout adolescence that ‘artists were dead people in books’, the young KAWS made a name for himself in the New York City graffiti scene during the early 1990s. A time in which a surge of advertisements began to take up coveted graffiti spots. In response to this, KAWS’ work became increasingly provocative. He began removing advertisements from bus shelters and telephone boxes, editing them overnight in his studio and replacing them the next morning to be viewed by the public. Unsuspecting and confused, New Yorkers would be faced with Bendy - a sexually disconcerting tadpole figure, wrapped around the familiar Kate Moss and Christy Turlington in Calvin Klein’s iconic underwear ads. In time, KAWS’ relationship with the ad industry became symbiotic in nature - after tagging a Captain Morgan billboard, the company decided to incorporate the tagged design into their next advertising campaign.

 KAWS, Five Suspects, 2016

A turning point in his career occurred in 1999 after a meeting with the Japanese clothing brand Bounty Hunter, with whom KAWS had an opportunity to design limited edition vinyl toys, which KAWS considers  ‘an accessible form of sculpture’. His toys became an instant hit success with the global art toy-collecting community and since, KAWS has embraced the commercialist spirit of Claes Oldenburg and Takashi Murakami designing everything from the 2013 MTV Moonman trophy and Nike Air Jordan sneakers to a Peanuts inspired t-shirt with Uniqlo in 2017. Gaining both street accreditation and acceptance in the contemporary art scene, KAWS continues to blur the boundaries between fine and commercial art in a way unseen before.

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