Towering over the viewer at eight feet tall, KAWS’s monumental wooden sculpture AT THIS TIME belongs to the artist’s signature series of COMPANION sculptures. KAWS’s COMPANIONS rank amongst the most emblematic figures within the American artist’s pervasive visual lexicon. In recent years, Brooklyn-based Brian Donnelly – known more widely by his moniker KAWS – has not only earned his position as one of the most acclaimed sculptors of our generation but has also become firmly established as a universally recognised household name. It is principally through his large-scale public sculptures that KAWS successfully traverses the realms of high art and mass culture, with his trademark COMPANION character at the very forefront of this campaign. Global icons of our time, the COMPANION figures are simultaneously endearing and sinister, playful and psychologically charged. Their universal appeal lies in KAWS’s attention grabbing aesthetic “that merges,” as writer Emily Gosling attests, “childhood nostalgia with the macabre... [to join] up the dots between street art, fine art and merch” (Emily Gosling, ‘No KAWS for concern’, It’s Nice That, 4 February 2016, online). Housed in numerous public collections including Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; Brooklyn Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park; and High Museum, Atlanta, works such as the present are poignant emblems of our contemporary society.
The figure in AT THIS TIME stands with his head tilted backwards and his hands pressed firmly into his eyes, as if in a state of mock despair. Two large X’s – the hallmark of KAWS’s practice – are carved into his hands. Simultaneously celebrating and mourning a globalised age of capitalism, mass consumption and accelerated diffusion of information, the present sculpture encompasses the unique duality of joy and anguish that characterises our contemporary moment. While his X-eyes are simultaneously closed yet all-seeing in defiance of a world pervaded with brands, logos, and homogenised consumerism, the figure’s cartoon presence harnesses our childhood memories to remind us of the power of hope and faith in humanity.
One of the most prominent heirs of Pop art alongside artists such as Jeff Koons, KAWS studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. After graduating, he worked briefly as a freelance illustrator before adopting the name KAWS as a young graffiti artist in Jersey City. In the 1990s, after moving to New York, he began to practice ‘subvertising’ to parody and spoof corporate and political advertisements on bus shelters, phone booths and billboards. Gradually, the artist expanded his imagery beyond graffiti, inventing his own host of characters appropriated from classic cartoons including SpongeBob SquarePants, The Simpsons and Garfield. Extending the art historical lineage of appropriated images by Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, KAWS supplants his characters’ heads with his skull motif, updating the universally cherished childhood iconography for our contemporary context. With works such as AT THIS TIME, KAWS compellingly infiltrates the realm of mass consumerism, reinventing a truly distinctive lexicon that permeates the world of contemporary art and popular culture. In the artist’s own words: “[COMPANION] deals with life the way everyone does… [and] is more real in dealing with contemporary human circumstances. He reflects attitudes we all have” (KAWS cited in: Exh. Cat., Fort Worth, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, 2016, p. 5).
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