The most direct reference to the postmodern ideas of the hyperreal and of authorship and originality can be found in KAWS’s recurring sculptural figure COMPANION.
Strikingly iconic and monumental in scale, COMPANION ranks amongst the most emblematic figures within KAWS’ pervasive visual lexicon. In recent years, Brooklyn-based KAWS (Brian Donnelly) has not only earned his position amongst the most acclaimed sculptors of our generation but also become firmly established as a universally recognized and adored 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. A global icon of our time, KAWS’ COMPANION figures are everyone’s best friend, “seemingly emphasiz[ing] with us while we emphasize with them – plodding through life” (Andrea Karnes, KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, Exh. Cat., Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Fort Worth, 2016, p. 49). Simultaneously celebrating and mourning a globalized age of capitalism, mass consumption and accelerated diffusion of information, COMPANION remains our staunch and loyal sidekick: while his X-eyes are eternally closed in defiance of a world pervaded with brands, logos, and homogenized consumerism, the figure’s adorable 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, KAWS studied illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York. After graduating, he worked briefly as a freelance illustrator before beginning to use 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 including the three most emblematic: COMPANION, CHUM and ACCOMPLICE, a bunny with long ears. These hybrid characters employ the tactic of cartoon appropriation, extending the art historical lineage of appropriated images by pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Going one step further than his predecessors, KAWS supplants the characters’ heads with his skull motif, updating the universally cherished childhood iconography to a contemporary context. KAWS’ resulting figureheads became the design bases for limited-edition figurines, vinyl toys, streetwear and eventually even high-end fashion collaborations – infiltrating the realm of mass consumerism and reinventing a truly distinctive lexicon that permeates the worlds of contemporary art and popular culture.
COMPANION was one of the first characters created by KAWS. Characterized by the artist’s skull-and-crossbones head with X-eyes, COMPANION was also the first of the artist’s characters to be realised in three-dimensional form when KAWS collaborated with Japanese brand Bounty Hunter to produce limited edition vinyl figurines in 1999. Since then, iterations of the character have spearheaded KAWS’ global appeal as an international art world sensation. Whether in toy form or in life-size sculptural form, KAWS’ adorable COMPANION inspires a growing dedicated following from all corners of the world. KAWS himself explains: “He [COMPANION] deals with life the way everyone does” and “is more real in dealing with contemporary human circumstances. He reflects attitudes we all have” (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat. KAWS: WHERE THE END STARTS, 2017, p. 5).
Such a resonance of humanity is amplified by KAWS’ explorations in scale, exemplified in KAWS’s larger-than-life COMPANION sculptures constructed in iconic locations around the globe, which deliberately dismantle the boundaries between high and low art. Like his artistic influences Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons, KAWS scales up his motif in the manner of the grand tradition of classical sculpture. In a twist of perspective, the tables are turned and viewers are rendered toy-like, as if having accidentally stumbled upon an otherworldly realm where cartoons assume a more dominant presence. “[B]y 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 people’s perspectives,” said KAWS (Ibid, p. 41). Speaking about his strategy of challenging the distinctions between toys and sculptures, the artist has said: “to me they involve the thought process, so it’s funny that when I work big in bronze, it’s called a sculpture, but something I do that’s small and plastic is called a toy” (the artist cited in Carlo McCormick, “From the Streets to TV to Fine Art Galleries, KAWS Is Everywhere”, Paper, November 4, 2013, online). Eschewing art’s traditionally anti-commercial idealism and infiltrating the worlds of mass culture and commerce, KAWS’ COMPANION establishes a new paradigm in art history, constituting less a commentary than a continuous and powerful enactment of the complex role of capitalist culture and popular media in personal narratives and everyday lives.