In the last decade, street-inspired graffiti artwork has slowly begun to stray away from its original home. This often frowned upon style of art, which uses the space on blank city walls as a modern-day art canvas, is now finding a new home, a home off of the streets and into some of the world’s most well renowned and upscale art museums. The best of the best are even selling their work to some high-end art collectors who are paying thousands of dollars for art that only a few years ago was looked down upon.
Here in Atlanta, where graffiti can be found on almost every corner, The High Museum of Art is now home to an exhibit curated by the hugely influential and the greatly respected street artist, KAWS. Born in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1974 with the name of Brian Donnelly, KAWS was a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York where in 1996 he graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration. After graduating, KAWS had a short-lived work career at Disney. While he was there he painted backgrounds as a freelance animator. He also had contributed to the animated series Daria, Doug and 101 Dalmatians.
His art career began as a young aspiring graffiti artist in the late 80’s when he began spray painting freight trains and covering the city walls of New Jersey with his name. He later moved to New York City in the 90’s where he would paint on phone booths, bus shelter ads and even high-rise billboards. At first, his modified ads would be left untouched for several months on end. But once the popularity of KAWS’ work began to rise, the pieces were a hot commodity and were being snatched up all over by his many fans. With all of the marketing hype surrounding the persona of KAWS, he had no time to take a break. In the late 90’s he began creating limited edition vinyl toys, which were instantly grabbed up by fans and toy collectors across the globe. His key market appeared to mainly be in Japan, where collecting toys was very common and highly respected. KAWS has also been involved with a few collaborations with different clothing companies like Original Fake, A Bathing Ape and Kung Faux. He has even made snowboards for Burton and different kicks for Nike and Vans. KAWS has painted everywhere from Paris and Berlin to Tokyo and London. KAWS’ ability to blur the line between fine art and street art is a huge reason he has such a wide audience. His sculptures and paintings both have recurring themes in them that anyone can understand in any language. His new exhibit “Down Time” at The High Museum highlights some of KAWS’ older work that he has created.
Walking up to the museum in the Sifly Piazza you are greeted by a 16 ft sculpture of KAWS’ character, Companion. Created by KAWS in 2010, the sculpture portrays a generic grey and white cartoon character with a Mickey Mouse inspired body and gloves whose head is a skull and cross bones. The gloves, that cover Companion’s eyes in a see no evil fashion, have KAWS’ trademark X’s on them. The sculpture gave me a sort of depressing vibe and you almost feel bad for the sad guy. KAWS says Rodin’s The Thinker was an inspiration for Companion’s posture. I get the feeling that Companion is down because even a happy go lucky cartoon gets somber sometimes, right?
Inside at the top Sky Level of the museum the rest of KAWS’ art can be found.
The first room is filled with 27 circle canvases that KAWS has hand painted. The images are close up views of his KAWSBOB prints, a play on SpongeBob SquarePants. The canvases were all close-ups of character eyes crossed out by X’s and views of mouths with tongues out and teeth showing. His use of straight lines is so thorough and precise it’s almost like he’s a robot.
Strolling over to the back room was a more intimate look at some of his smaller pieces, which were still equally amazing.
KAWS’ sketches were an inside look at how his art process as a whole begins. His attention to detail and use of shading is so unique and impressive. There were at least twenty framed sketches, all of which were eye-catching. The sketches ranged from outlines for T-shirt designs to ideas for toys. Most people walked right by the sketches but I highly recommend taking a closer look to actually see how detailed this guy really is.
The tucked away room also features KAWS’ collaboration with fashion photographer David Sims. These photos of celebrities like Kate Moss and Iggy Pop were made even cooler with the help of KAWS. His ghost-like character is hugging Kate’s body with such perfect form that they appear to have been at the actual photo shoot. There were about twelve of these photos displayed on the wall and they led you to a display of a few vinyl toys made by KAWS. There was his take on Pinocchio and Jiminy Crickett with and a few different versions of Companion also. My favorite was the almost cute Darth Vader doll with red X’s for eyes.
KAWS is truly one of our generations top crossover graffiti artist so I would totally recommend going to check out this exhibit while it’s in town. The exhibit ends May 20, so make sure you make some time to check it out.