Well in advance of entering the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, prepare to receive a sizable jolt from its latest exhibition, “KAWS: Where the End Starts.”
Through Jan. 22, museum patrons will be greeted by Clean Slate, a 2014 fiberglass work that looms 22 feet over the museum’s understated entry.
The monumental Clean Slate bears all of the artistic motifs — the skull-and-crossbones for a head, x’s for eyes (that also tattoo the backs of the Mickey Mouse-shaped gloved hands and booted feet) — that distinguish so many of KAWS’ works.
But the gargantuan statue also embodies KAWS’ signature mix of cartoonish levity with human-scale emotion. It displays KAWS’ ability to traverse a spectrum of feelings, using seemingly innocuous cartoon forms to explore such unsparing sentiments as pathos and isolation.
“Where the End Starts” constitutes a mid-career survey on the 42-year-old KAWS (the nom de plume for the Brooklyn-based artist born Brian Donnelly). The roughly 100-work show dispatches the museum patron on a journey from his earliest work as a maverick street-graffiti artist to his present standing as a museum-worthy fine artist.
“I know this covers a period starting in 1996, but it really feels like only 10 minutes ago,” the artist says. “It really was nothing more than working at the art on a daily basis, and then 20 years later, you realize just how much you’ve accumulated.”
KAWS recently reflected on his beginnings in New York as a ’90s-era graffiti artist. It was a period when he would break into the advertisement cases of phone booths and bus shelters and remove the poster-sized ads for such brands as DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein and Guess.
Once back in his makeshift studio, KAWS added to them his trademark touches: the x’s for eyes and the skull-and-crossbones heads, occasionally on a sexually-suggestive serpent form.
“At that point in my life, when there wasn’t a street-art frenzy as in times past, I just wanted my art to connect with as many people as possible and that was my way to do it,” says the artist, who was weaned on such cartoon favorites as the Smurfs, SpongeBob SquarePants and the Simpsons.
“Quite simply,” adds Andrea Karnes, the Modern’s curator and exhibition organizer, “the quickest way for KAWS to get his ideas in front of as large an audience as possible was to start as a graffiti artist. KAWS really considered his earliest art to be a conversation with those ads.”
Getting to know ‘Chums’
The exhibition immediately introduces three “Chums” (from 2012 and 2014) in energetic running poses. These acrylics on canvas carry a Michelin-man type body and are done in phosphorescent shades of lime green, pink and orange, with their bodies delineated in the precise dark border lines reflecting KAWS’ talent as a graphic artist.
Early on in the exhibit, KAWS’ full-color palette is shown in the show’s largest work on canvas — the three-paneled Silent City (2011), an explosion of fuchsia, red, purple and green that highlights two of the artist’s favorite abstract shapes: planks and rings.
KAWS’ Day-Glo color palette and singular way with his favorite abstract shapes are more explicitly shown in the only KAWS in the Modern’s permanent collection, Where the End Starts (2011), which became the apt name for the entire show.
The exhibit wastes little time in contrasting KAWS’ color-wheel swagger with his ability to tap into the restrained power of black and white. In one of KAWS’ iconic figures, Chum (2009), a black-painted, fiberglass-bodied “Michelin man” stands proudly, x’s where eyes should be, skull-and-crossbones for a head.
“Whether they are called chum, accomplice or companion,” notes Karnes, “they all reflect the artist’s feeling that we long for a partner in crime, a friend.”
The exhibition does a laudable job of tracing the early evolution of KAWS’ art, termed Package Paintings Series (2000-2002). Back then, KAWS encased his acrylic-based, often 19-by-19-inch works behind clear, plastic blister packs, a more-than-glancing reference to Andy Warhol’s mastery at combining art with commercial merchandising.
In fact, today it is common to find KAWS’ signature motifs emblazoned on sneakers, toys, magazine covers and skateboards.
In some of KAWS’ earliest acrylics on canvas, he often created a Simpsons-inspired set of figurative characters dubbed the “Kimpsons.” But in a quintessential KAWS moment of adding a slightly macabre twist, in Kimpsons (2004) he portrays the original Simpsons characters wearing detached skull-and-crossbones heads and x’s for eyes.
“What KAWS did was combine familiar imagery that already exists from the cartoon world and added his own double x’s and skull-and-crossbones with the result being that his figures take on both a friendly and a darker aspect,” Karnes says.
“These become cartoons made for adults — just like The Simpsons or Mickey Mouse — neither of whom is happy all the time, but, instead, are just trying to get through life, just like any of us.”
When it comes to KAWS and sculpture, his jumping-off point is life-size, often culminating in several-stories-high gigantic. Five wooden works command neck-craning attention in the Modern’s largest ground-floor gallery. They are filled with KAWS’ classic bulbous figures, with skull-and-crossbones heads, x’s for eyes and Mickey Mouse-gloved hands.
Larger than life-size
Yet for all their undeniable size, these five works — especially Small Lie (2013), with its bowed head and Pinocchio-like expanding nose — convey remarkably poignant human emotions. The largest of the works, Together (2016), has one figure consoling another in its humongous arms, while other figures seem to be wrestling with a kind of existential loneliness.
“These works are a mix of friendly, cute, with a downtrodden feeling of being slightly alone in the world,” Karnes says. “Even with his multifigure sculptures, KAWS affects an isolation accomplished through bodily gesture.”
Indeed, KAWS’ sculptures often manage to juxtapose the lightheartedness inherent in any cartoon character with the more somber aspects of their expressions — reflecting the harsher realities of the world.
“Some of my sculptures actually console each other,” KAWS says. “Which contrasts with the cartoon character that is often a superhero, or certainly a cheering device. I realize this is a rather lonely world, and that is why my sculptures have that more human approach.”
KAWS’ empathetic humanity, tinged with a bit of pathos, reaches an artistic apotheosis in the final, monumental, interior-displayed sculpture.
Companion (Passing Through) (2010) introduces a hulking cartoon-shaped character, holding its hands up over its bowed head. The figure wears an expression of desired anonymity — or suppressed anguish — perhaps in the face of a horde of intrusive onlookers.
The work seems to sum up the artist’s notion of how mortifying it must be to be “gawked at,” as KAWS terms it, with the only remedy being to duck and avert one’s eyes.
And while KAWS might be ambivalent about the invasive fame that his art might have unleashed, he does allow himself moments of reminiscing about his salad days as an urban-guerrilla public artist, where his work was best enjoyed by the masses in that greatest gallery of all: the street.
“In the city streets,” KAWS says, “I like it when real people confront an object like a sculpture — and what their reaction is when they are not looking to be reached.”
the End Starts
- Through Jan. 22
- Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell St., Fort Worth
- 817-738-9215, www.themodern.org