Untitled (Seeing/Watching), 2018 Ink on paper

“When I was doing graffiti, my whole thought was, ‘I just want to exist,’” Brian Donnelly told Italian art historian Germano Celant in November 2009. At that time, social media was only just finding demand on platforms such as MySpace, but the era of viral followings on Instagram was in the distant future. For bold and daring young artists, the streets of New York were urban jungles; blank canvases for expression and perhaps the earliest concept of ‘accessible artwork’ for the middle and lower classes. Armed with spray cans, the prominence of ’90s street art had splashed into the 21st century.

Residing in New York City in the mid-’90s, Donnelly, also known as Kaws, had begun his career in the art landscape, streaking his signature tag and animated sensibilities onto billboards, bus stops and advertisements. His humorous figures with crosses for eyes and protruding ears – reminiscent of the recognisable skull and crossbones symbol – wrapped and weaved around the sides of commercials for cologne and fashion. Just as his notoriety rose, so too did his popularity, and after graduating from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, the creative worked as a freelance contributor for Disney, painting cells of notable films such as 101 Dalmatians and Daria. For the artist, his creative expression was larger than the mainstream commercial life and, by the late ’90s, Donnelly travelled between Paris, London, Berlin and Tokyo designing and producing limited-edition toys. Naturally, the New Jersey-born artist gained an overwhelming response in Japanese pop culture, and from early on, Kaws had found an untapped niche between street art culture, fine art and collectables. Since his early beginnings, the now 45-year-old boasts 2.5 million followers on Instagram – a testament to his cult status among several societal subcultures – and now Melbourne will become the next outpost to experience his work in a live setting.

Come September, and running through until April 2020, more than 100 works – including early pieces – will come to fruition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Formed in collaboration with NGV senior curator Simon Maidment, Kaws: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness will arrive to the art and culture capital in a nation first. In a comprehensive survey of 25 years of Kaws, the hotly anticipated exhibition will celebrate Kaws’s ability to connect to a broad audience with humour, hope and humanity. In the lead-up to the opening, ICON sat down with Maidment for an insight into the New York-based creative.

Left, Together, 2017 Bronze, paint. Right, Accomplice, 2010 Fibreglass, paint.

This year, Kaws appeared in headlines across the world as the artist, in partnership with AllRightsReserved, toured Asia with what is Donnelly’s most bold feat to date. From South Korea to Taiwanese capital Taipei, visitors flocked to tourist hotspots to witness his large inflatable companions. Forming part of the Kaws: Holiday travelling exhibition, iterations of the signature grey character caught the tide to Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and, most recently, basked under the sunset at Mount Fuji in Japan. It was an effort that had never been seen before, with Kaws proving there is still untapped potential in the scale of art. And this was again seen at Kim Jones’s debut Dior Homme Spring/Summer 2019 Collection, which was the site of another mammoth Kaws companion. Now, Donnelly counts an impressive list of collaborations such as Sesame Street, Uniqlo and Herschel. As with his followers list, which is well into the millions, he also considers the likes of Virgil Abloh, Pharrell Williams, Travis Scott and Bella Hadid as fans of the empirical, artistic movement.

The ingenuity of Kaws and his knack for extravagance will also be made apparent at the upcoming NGV exhibition in Melbourne. Set to stand in NGV’s glass-ceilinged Federation Court, the contemporary gallery will boast a newly commissioned seven-metre bronze companion sculpture. On display, this monumental work will be the largest bronze work Kaws has created so far and will stand in a Pietà pose – a common motif for the creative. The grandeur of such a piece will need to be experienced in person. “That particular work is really significant,” Maidment explains to ICON, clearly elated about its anticipated arrival. “It’s going to be the biggest bronze sculpture that he’s made but also probably the biggest that has ever been shown at the NGV… it’s a really big feat of craftsmanship, of engineering, of vision. We’ll be the first gallery in Australia to have a Kaws artwork like this. It’s really humbling.” As mentioned, Donnelly’s signature pieces are most notably seen across the likes of Dior and more accessible brands such as Uniqlo, but the work of Kaws stems far deeper than cult collectables and fine art treasures. For Maidment, this most recent exhibition – which is said to boast more than 100 works of art – is as much an exploration of humanity as it is emotive connection.

Though the work of Kaws isn’t overtly political in its messaging, questions about society are rooted within the pieces. Unlike many artists and their methods, he speaks to a broad audience – “those people who are really interested from the fashion perspective, from painting and fine art perspective and from a street art perspective,” Maidment says. “Each one of those demographics sees his work in quite a different way.” But for the Australian curator, the essence remains constant and a theme that many fans are innately drawn to. Its titled Companions, also known as BFFs, are often found sitting, standing, slouched and enveloped in embrace and, albeit simple, evoke a strange sense of empathy. This craving for intimacy remains at the core of Donnelly’s practice and, as humans, is instinct. “The reason why I called this show Kaws: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness is I really do believe there is something at the heart of a lot of Brian’s work that is deeply humanistic and very emotional,” reflects Maidment. “There’s this sense that these creatures, avatars, all of these characters still very much possess human traits, speaking to the bigger senses of anxiety and loneliness and fears that go along with the contemporary age. I believe his works point to the fact that, in a way, very basic human emotions or human presence and companionship are at the heart of living a good life and being there for one another.”

Showcasing his hallmark use of bold fields of colours, the latest works from Kaws dissolve his practice of painting and figurines into hybrid pieces – a hero element for the artist. Straddling between several artistic processes, the full depth of Donnelly’s creative abilities are made apparent, whether it’s a towering sculpture or the use of intricate techniques. Precariously balancing on the edge of absurdity and mass-fascination, the Kaws signature fuses everyday objects and commercial pop culture with curious animations to create reimagined worlds. Initially, the work of Donnelly appears to be a mere play on these icons, but deeper interpretation reveals almost character studies, such as SpongeBob’s psychedelic tendencies and the sex iconography of Kate Moss.

Donnelly is known to pay homage to American artist Keith Haring and just as Haring revealed his work in many forms and conventions – particularly in the beloved ‘Pop Shop’ in the late 1980s – the full range of Kaws’s artistic range will also be accompanied by a pop-up store. Continuing his ethos of making art accessible for all, visitors of the exhibition will have the opportunity to own a small piece of Kaws’s iconic heritage. Within his cult following, there is a sense of creative leadership from the artist and, as with any coveted brand or identity, owning a piece of his work, collectables or merchandise is flying the flag of followership. Maidment believes since the inception of Donnelly’s webstore, a “big subculture” was based around the artist. Comparatively, to the early ’90s boom of underground sneaker and hip-hop culture. Now, for example, on reseller giant StockX, some of Donnelly’s most coveted collectables are attracting big dollars, including a ‘Kaws x Real Skateboards’ deck for the lowest asking price of $5215, and a ‘Clean Slate Vinyl Figure’ for $1014. Even his 2018 Uniqlo T-Shirt collaboration is a hot buy on the site. If anything, it proves that even when reselling hadn’t taken flight yet, his platform for selling limited-edition pieces was overwhelmingly successful.

New Morning, 2012 Acrylic on canvas over panel (in two parts)

“Brian was very much influenced by this idea of art taking many forms in a high-end art gallery, but also available as a badge or a shop, bag or flag,” says Maidment. “That spirit is very much in his practice and that has lent itself to people finding what the next manifestation of his practice will be through social media.” Working across painting, drawing, sculpting, graffiti and animation, the accessibility to Kaws’s work is made for all ages. Coinciding with the main exhibition at NGV, the gallery will also hold a children’s project titled Kaws: Playtime. Set to be a colourful exhibition for kids that illuminates the artist’s methods of working, it will again highlight Kaws’s allure from the young and old.

Along the Way, 2013 Wood

Maidment and Donnelly started discussing the Australian-based project three years ago and, according to the curator, “he’s got a real vision for his work but he’s very open to hearing interpretations of it and where it might go.” To curate and produce an exhibition of this enormity, there is an entire army of people who work behind the scenes and is something Maidment believes many people don’t realise. “We have people working on the merchandise and additions for the NGV pop-up shop, we’ve got people working hard with Brian in his studio on a major catalogue of about 350 to 400 pages. We’ve got photographers flying in to do that. We’ve got shipments coming from South East Asia with artworks, from North America, some by boat, some by air. Framings to do of drawings, walls to build… there’s a whole army you don’t see that works on these projects… really an enormous undertaking,” Maidment explains before taking a sigh of relief. “I think there’s something like 200 and something objects, artworks, limited editions coming over from Brian and 10 lenders from around the world let alone the exhibition designers and the production of the book and the children’s project.

“It’s going to be quite an immersive show and it will take people on a journey through his practice. It shows all of the key turns or tendencies within his art making from his very early graffiti days, all the way through to the newest works and including sculptures and works on paper and paintings. It’s really one to come and leave one’s self enough time to see the work – it’s going to be a bit of a journey, a bit of a discovery. On display will be some of the most significant works that the artist has made in all of these ways of working.”