Arguably one of the most visible and brazen artists to come out of the street art upswell of the 1980s and 90s, KAWS creates sharp, witty works that follow in the footsteps of Pop Art and the consumer culture questioning of artists like Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Takashi Murakami. A striking example of KAWS’s appropriative techniques and ability to infuse seemingly innocuous animated characters with wry humor and critical discourse, Kurfs (Tangle) is a vivid take on cultural imagery that helps establish the artist as one of the most vibrant descendants of Pop.
Tangled up in a lime green vine, the titular Kurf grapples with its entrapment using fist and foot. Rendered with KAWS’s exacting attention to the original animation style, the figure is nonetheless seen sporting the artist’s signature skull and crossbones head with ‘x’s for eyes. This negation of personality makes for an oddly confrontational reading of the otherwise ubiquitous children’s character. The rest of the scene takes on the look of an animation cell as the background is less bold than the action at the front. A small house built into the cap of a mushroom sits squatly in the towering greenery as the battle between Kurf and vine continues in the foreground. This strangely violent scene, coupled with the artist’s alterations, casts the Saturday morning cartoon in a darker light. “By giving the comics a new face,” writes Germano Celant, “the artist seems to aspire to update their past, which is not simply playful and lyrical, but can also be frightening and deathly. Hence the masks with ‘sewn’ eyes that do not look ahead but inside at their own stories…” (G. Celant, “BD and K,” in KAWS: 1993-2010, exh. cat., Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 2010, p. 55). Never one to take things at face value, KAWS’s investigations into the absurdity of animation and its crossover into the real world continue unabated.
KAWS, born Brian Donnelly, grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey during the 1970s and 80s. During this time of economic hardship and urban decay, the young artist took to the streets where he painted graffiti on walls, billboards and trains. During the 1990s, KAWS evolved as an artist and began to intervene in ads that featured cartoon characters. Unlocking the casements for bus stop and phone booth advertisements, he was able to insert his modifications into the original composition and then close the panel back up again. One of his early works included an alteration of a large MetLife advertisement that featured Woodstock and Snoopy from the popular Peanuts cartoon and comic strip. This mediation prefigured his work with the Peanuts brand later in life as his subtle but audacious style became sought after with the recognition of street art by the world at large. Noting early on the importance of questioning consumerism and how animated figures were used to sell all manner of goods and services, KAWS recounted, “[I] found it weird how infused a cartoon could become in people’s lives; the impact it could have, compared to regular politics” (B. Donnelly, “Graffiti Artist Turned Gallery Artist Turned Art Toy Maker, KAWS,” Pop, February 2007, pp. 260-265). Choosing to work with popular culture allowed KAWS to speak to his audience on a level they were familiar with, and thus to more aptly spread his ideas.
Especially notable for his appropriation of popular animation culture, KAWS draws upon extant imagery to comment on consumer culture and its place within the art world and the everyday. Kurfs (Tangle) is a part of a series of works that pays homage to the minute blue characters from the television cartoon The Smurfs. Replacing the first two letters of the word ‘smurf’ with the ‘k’ for KAWS, the artist continues a practice he has applied to other popular characters. Chief among these are the Kimpsons, his take on the titular dysfunctional family in The Simpsons. As in the latter, the character in Kurfs (Tangle) takes on specific KAWS elements like the skull-and-crossbones head and the x-ed out eyes. These elements are exceedingly familiar to anyone who has seen the artist’s work with other characters in gallery exhibitions, toys and clothing crossovers. About his use of these ubiquitous, fictional personalities, the artist notes, “Icons like Mickey, the Simpsons, the Michelin Man and SpongeBob exist in a universal way that you forget their origin or even there [sic] narrative, and you just recognize them from the slightest glimpse of their image or sound” (KAWS, quoted in K. Donoghue, Whitewall, December 2012, n.p.). One does not need to be familiar with a certain episode or even the general plot as these characters have permeated the cultural unconscious in a way that they are instantly familiar even when slightly altered.
KAWS is one of the leading artists working within the legacy of Pop Art and its abiding interest in consumerism and commodity culture. His Companion figure, a bizarre amalgam that resembles Mickey Mouse with a skull and crossbones for a face, frequently infuses itself into other characters as in Kurfs (Tangle), as well as other pieces like the aforementioned Kimpsons, the SpongeBob SquarePants-influenced Kawsbob and large shaped canvases like Chum (KCB7) that inhabits the rotund body of the Michelin Man. The artist readily admits to his indebtedness to his artistic predecessors, noting, “I think the pop artists like [Claes] Oldenburg and [Tom] Wesselmann [set the stage]. Then there were artists like Murakami, who really opened up a lot of doors on acceptance and crossover projects. That made what I was doing a bit easier to translate. And definitely Jeff Koons. I love his work. I appreciate his perfectionist mentality. It’s so over the top” (B. Donnelly, quoted in T. Maguire, “KAWS,” Interview, April 27, 2010). The idea of crossover, especially with Murakami and artists like Keith Haring is important to KAWS’s continuing ability to transcend the realms of high art and spread his imagery to toys, clothes and various other areas while still remaining critically viable. Like Haring, who famously opened the Pop Shop to democratize his work in a capitalist society, KAWS is keenly aware of the commercial element of art, and works to comment on and infiltrate it at every turn.