Brian Donnelly aka KAWS inside KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 2019 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Eugene Hyland

In late-April, it was announced that KAWS aka Brian Donnelly and a comprehensive survey of 25 years of work would hit Australian shores. Standing alongside the likes of Keith Haring and Doni White, the New York-based artist has garnered a cult following amongst the fashion, street and fine art industry for his quirky characters, abstract canvases and curious fusion of notable pop culture references and advertising – which has since been dubbed ‘subverting’. In the ’80s, his unique practices and treatment of graffiti had never been seen before and thanks to the later inception of highly-coveted collectables, the signature cross-and-bone motif has evolved into many forms – whether it be in a New York City gallery or floating with the current of Hong Kong’s picturesque Victoria Harbour.

Now, over 100 pieces including a newly commissioned 7-metre bronze – the largest bronze KAWS has created to date – have descended into the National Gallery of Victoria for an Australian-first. Titled KAWS: Companionship In The Age Of Loneliness, ICON travelled to Melbourne to sit down with the artist for insight on his early life, inspiration and altercations with the law.

ICON: Firstly, can you recall the first time you realised art was what you wanted to do in life?

Brian Donnelly: “I was always inclined towards art and in terms of making things but it didn’t seem like that would be a profession. This is something I loved doing but I needed something else to subsidise it. Even after I got out of – I went to art school – and then getting out and working in arts, I still at that moment thought I would have to do some sort of illustration work. There was no plan ‘B’, I never felt like, I didn’t realise until later on that I could make my own art.”

Your debut in the art world had begun with graffiti. Were you ever caught? Do you have any stories about avoiding law enforcement?

BD: “I don’t know whether you could call graffiti a debut into the art world (laughs). I’ve been very fortunate with very little altercations with any sort of legal [authorities]. I was just doing lettering night and day – some legal, some illegal – I mean, I’ve been arrested but it’s nothing interesting to talk about.”

KAWS UNTITLED (MAIDENFORM) 2000 Acrylic on existing advertising poster 127 x 66 cm
Did you ever think that those tags and graffiti would grow your fame to such enormity?

BD: “That was a moment in my life where I was very interested in that [and] at the same time especially when I was in college, I was oil painting. So I had these different masks that I would wear. I think if I only stayed in and focussed on graffiti, I’m not sure the work would have taken me to the extent that it has.”

How did you get into that realm of art?

BD: “Just curiosity and figuring out where to go, where to be.”

Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross
What artist, dead or alive would you love to have dinner with? And why?

BD: “Can it just be the last supper with a lot of artists? That would be more fun to me. I would much rather be a fly on the wall and see the conversations happen between artists. Like H.C. Westerman is an artist I really appreciate but never really got to meet. It would be great if Martin Wong and Keith Haring were in the same room. I’d love to see Dondi White again.”

When you first started perusing your own art professionally, did you experience any knockbacks from galleries?

BD: “Yeah definitely. When I was younger, when I first had the idea that I wanted to show my work in a gallery space, at the time especially in the ‘90s you could be a fine artist or a commercial artist, you couldn’t be both. So galleries looked at me as being very commercial and they were weary of that, weary of bringing that into the gallery.”

Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 –13 April 2020.Photo ©Tom Ross
What was one of your first exhibitions in a traditional gallery?

BD: “[The] first exhibition I did was Parker Museum in 2001. I was part of an exhibition called ‘Beautiful Losers’ that was at Orange County Museum in 2004. Galleries in 2008 like Perrotin. And from that show to present I’ve been on a pretty steady grind.”

You have said that you have your own emotional attachments to the pieces. Can you explain some of those feelings? Which works spark this?

BD: “Some of the works, they’re things I want to bring out. With ‘GONE’ I was really thinking about making a sculpture about loss and playing with the texture of BFF in contrast to Companion – just what that could look like and how I can find ways to make the imagery I want to make, but dealing with the subject I want to. I really want the weight felt in the hands and how he’s holding him. The posture that the figures have.”

Installation view of KAWS: Companionship in the Age of  Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 19 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Tom Ross
I must ask, with the political climate in American at the moment, do you feel a pull to incorporate this unrest through your work?

BD: “The work that I make has been pretty consistent over the years and I feel the political climate has caught up with some of the sentiment in the work. You can’t avoid looking at things through the lens of what is going on politically right now. Things are brought out in different ways. It’s a pretty bleak time.”

Where else do you draw inspiration from?

BD: “I draw inspiration from everywhere. Walking around, seeing the things I see, my kids, the things they gravitate towards. What I see in the street, in a museum, what people are wearing. You don’t know where it’s going to come from.”

Have your kids changed or influenced the way you work?

BD: I don’t think they have changed how I conduct my work, if anything they’ve justified the aesthetic around my house the few years before they existed. (laughs)”

KAWS KAWSBOB 3 2007 acrylic on canvas © KAWS
Talk to me about the moment Kim Jones asked you to collaborate on the Men’s Summer 2019 runway?

BD: “I was friends with Kim before that, when he was at Louis Vuitton. And we talked about doing something but it never really quite felt right and then he contacted me before it was announced that he was moving to Dior. And so, from that point on we had three months to the show, so everything was super-fast but it was fun and he let me run with it. He’s very generous with the exposure he gave the work and the sculpture and the runway, throughout all the store displays. I feel like the production on the whole project just snowballed and grew.

I love doing collaborations, I’ve always teetered back and forth between doing high and low [fashion]. And at the same time that released, the Uniqlo project released. It’s fun to be able to reach people in different ways.”

NGV hosts one of your most ambitious bronze sculptures to-date. How many years went into the work? What kind of processes do you have to take when designing at such a grand scale?

BD: “The actual production was a little over a year, but we’ve been talking about making it a bit longer than that and I came out for a site visit and looked at the courtyard and we discussed different scale. What kind of scale would hold best there? And then I proposed that sculpture and that pose. And thinking of the mezzanine and the grounds, what people’s interaction would be. And from there it was really the foundry I worked with. The foundry and the engineers are in Walla Walla. How do you get something like that stable, at that scale?”

You had once said, “When I was doing graffiti, my whole thought was, ‘I just want to exist’.” Now with an established career and 2 million followers on Instagram, what are you now hoping to achieve?

BD: “For me, I don’t really see it as an option, I just like to get up and make work. I’m really thankful that in each of the moments, new opportunities came. I’ve always thought this was the perfect thing. So even if I look back, things that might have been on a very small scale seemed extremely important to me at those times. I hope that never goes away. I’m excited to have this moment right now, but I’m also thinking about what projects are in the pipeline.”

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness is now open at the National Gallery of Victoria. For more information and tickets, visit the website here.