The 16-foot sculpture perched outside the usually staid Newcomb Art Museum on the Tulane University campus is both deeply strange and strangely familiar.
With its rounded shapes and cartoonish demeanor, it calls to mind a giant Disney character or denizen of Saturday morning TV. But it’s solid black instead of gaudy Technicolor.
And instead of displaying a goofy grin, its hands cover its eyes as it slumps forward with elbows on knees.
Is it ashamed? Sad? Or just shy?
If the character looks familiar, it may be because you’ve seen it in one (or several) of its many previous iterations over the past several years, including high-profile installations in New York, Atlanta and Hong Kong and even a giant inflatable version at the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
Welcome to the larger-than-life and surreal world of the artist known as KAWS.
From humble beginnings as a graffiti artist in his native Jersey City and later gaining a reputation for subversive street art around New York City, KAWS (aka Brian Donnelly) has created an instantly recognizable body of work over the last two decades — not to mention a worldwide (and lucrative) artistic empire.
His work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout Europe and Asia in addition to North America, and limited-edition KAWS prints, clothing and collectible figures fetch impressive prices on eBay.
He’s designed an album cover for Kanye West and was commissioned by Pharrell Williams to create both a bottle for his debut fragrance and several custom works of art for his collection.
But the Newcomb show also casts the artist in the roles of curator and collector himself.
Titled “A Shared Space,” the exhibition creates a dialogue between work by Karl Wirsum (a member of the genre-defying 1960s Chicago-based imagist art collective The Hairy Who) and contemporary pieces by Tokyo’s Tomoo Gokita, with 17 new works by KAWS functioning as sort of a conduit between the two. All of the pieces are from KAWS’ own collection.
KAWS made his first visit to New Orleans to install the show a few days prior to its opening Sept. 9.
“It’s the first time I’m showing these outside of my own space,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to share some art that I really love with a bigger audience.”
It’s also an opportunity for a closer look at two artists who deserve to be more widely known.
Wirsum’s vibrantly quirky wood and cloth assemblages were remixes before the term existed, and they find echoes in KAWS’ own artistic mashups combining fragments and shapes of pop culture icons like Snoopy and the Michelin man with the artist’s signature X’ed-out eyes and rounded forms.
Meanwhile there’s a deadpan and vaguely sinister air to Gokita’s canvases, in which faceless studio-style portraits are abstracted and flattened into contrasting planes. Those images are reflected, literally and metaphorically, in the glossy surfaces of KAWS’ impassive three-dimensional objects.
And all three artists share a marked graphic sensibility, most evident in Kirsum’s line drawings and Gokita’s strongly contrasted compositions as well as in the shaped canvases that constitute KAWS’ most recent work.
KAWS notes that the installation of the show challenges viewers to draw their own connections between the three artists, in much the same way that his own perceptions were changed by seeing works familiar to him in a new environment.
“Some of the dialogues between works in the show weren’t planned,” he said. “I came to New Orleans with an idea of how the show would look, but things began happening as we started installing the show in the space and moving things around.”
And as an artist who has seen his work exhibited in many different arenas — public, private and virtual — sharing the space with Gokita and Wirsum has been an opportunity for KAWS to add another context to that list.
“They’re two great and very different artists who might never had the chance to be looked at at the same time,” he said. “For me, it’s been a fun way of getting this work out there and seeing what works together.”