Conventional wisdom holds that the artistic process unfolds in solitude, the lonely hours transforming pain into painted canvases. And, if this is true, then it must be doubly so for the graffitist, whose solitary exploits are traditionally carried out under the shroud of night, temporary in existence, and credited strictly to an anonymous pseudonym. Take, for instance, the work of Brian “KAWS” Donnelly, whose trajectory from the street to the gallery to the museum doesn’t seem guided strictly by a desire for recognition but rather a wish to find like-minded collaborators, to end the cycle of solitude.

A Brief History of KAWS’ Early Years

Having only graduated high school the year before, Donnelly had already assumed his KAWS moniker and painted over his first full billboard in 1993. And though he sought a connection with other street artists, mainly through the Fame City (FC) and The Cool 5 (TC5) crews, Donnelly seemed to find contentment with his own form of “forceful” collaborations: painting his characters into printed advertisements, his creations forced to become part of the photographer’s vision. Having inherited a key to phone booth advertising panels from Barry “Twist” McGee and fabricating his own to unlock bus shelter displays, Donnelly had the ability to remove the posters that graced these structures. And by playfully embellishing the existing advertising designs with his own character creations, Donnelly’s direction not only set his art securely in the “now” but also created interplay with the iconic imagery he was decorating.

But in 1997, when this concept was still new and hadn’t garnered much attention yet, Donnelly took his first trip to Japan. Gaining great respect for the hard-working ethos and forward-thinking aesthetic prominent in the Ura-Harajuku scene’s lifestyle brands, Donnelly developed a relationship with Yoshifumi “Yoppi” Egawa of the realmadHECTIC apparel label, one that resulted in introductions the following year to Tomoaki “Nigo” Nagao of A Bathing Ape, Jun Takahashi of Undercover, Hikaru Iwanaga of Bounty Hunter, and Shinsuke Takizawa of Neighborhood. Ultimately finding a true collaborate atmosphere for himself, Donnelly worked with several of these Japanese tastemakers on clothing lines as well as Egawa and Iwanaga producing the artist’s Companion vinyl form in 1999 (learn more here). As the KAWS pseudonym become increasingly recognized within Japan, it led to the artist’s debut solo exhibition, 2001’s Tokyo First at the Parco Gallery. For this, Donnelly eschewed his ad-based backgrounds for wholly original canvas works, though he maintained that “forceful” collaborative atmosphere by creating renditions of The Simpsons characters with skull-like head shapes, crossbones-style adornments, and X’d out eyes. While it may be debatable if Donnelly’s Companion is a rendition of Mickey Mouse, these The Kimpsons works are undeniably based off of their cartoon character counterparts, this direction continued through KAWS-ified versions of The Smurfs, SpongeBob SquarePants, and many others, including what is arguably Japan’s most iconic, popular, and successful manga protagonist, Astro Boy.

The Evolution of KAWS’ Astro Boy Renditions

Beside the “forceful” collaboration aspect, Donnelly’s various usages of the childlike robot Astro Boy in his art can also be interpreted in terms of the artist’s own self-perception. For instance, the Companion vs. Astroboy screenprint was issued in 2002, only a year after Donnelly’s very first solo show, his uncertain footing in the art world potentially causing overcompensation in the portrayal of the KAWS character’s domination over the established hero, like a brash declaration of “I can be every bit as iconic as you”. But, a decade later and shortly after his Down Time exhibition at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, the Medicom Toy-produced Astro Boy (KAWS Version) vinyl edition is issued, its facepalm stance visually begging the question “Why did you do this to me?”, a form of self-mockery that required an artist who is extremely secure with himself and his creative voice.

While these diametric extremes are intriguing, there is another Astro Boy-based sculptural design from Donnelly to consider. Created specifically for March and April of 2003’s Original Fake exhibition at Tokyo’s BAPE Gallery, these 18½-inch tall Untitled (Astro Boy) pieces were cast in Fibre-Reinforced Plastic (or FRP) and limited to thirteen unique works, eight having black bodies with differently colored X’d out eyes and five in head-to-toe, one-of-a-kind colorations. Sometimes referred to as Donnelly’s first fine art sculptures, denoting how they were hand-painted rather than factory-decorated, these depict a harmonious hybridization akin to The Kimpsons series, the KAWS aspects seamlessly incorporated into Astro Boy’s well-known mid-flight stance. Neither self-aggrandizing nor depreciatory, they are just KAWS.

All five of KAWS’ hand-painted, full-color Astro Boy sculptures will included in Sotheby’s NIGO® Presents NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1 auction, which can be viewed by clicking here.

For more information on KAWS:
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