If Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS, didn’t exist, kidult America would have had to invent him. In his own Dennis the Menace way, KAWS has bridged the gap between toys and art, renegade graffiti and artistic license, producing an avalanche of mass-produced stuff and turning himself into an art world figure in the process. At 38, he is a child of his times, whose work has riffed on Mickey Mouse and The Simpsons, the Michelin Man, Smurfs and Spongebob Squarepants while somehow managing to turn them all into reflections of himself. After Mexican beer bottles for Dos Equis, wallets for Comme des Garçons, sneaks for Nike and Vans, and Burton snowboards, KAWS’ latest plaything is the Ikepod Horizon, a jewel of Swiss watch-making X’d out the KAWS way and edged with his signature cartoon clouds.
It was Sarah Andelman of Paris’s Colette who introduced KAWS to Ikepod, which has worked with Marc Newson and Jeff Koons. “I wanted to approach the watch like a sculpture, but to have every part perform a function instead of just applying a 2-D graphic to their product,” says Donnelly.
At this point, it’s nearly impossible to separate KAWS’ techy Geppetto side from the artist. In the same week he was in Paris to launch the watch, KAWS headed to Hong Kong for “The Nature of Need,” his latest show at Emmanuel Perrotin where the focus is paintings “somewhere between abstraction and figuration.”
For KAWS, doing toys has always been “an accessible way of making sculpture,” and painting over ads, beginning with a Captain Morgan billboard in 1993, was a way to take over a prime space to show his work. Even his first visit to Japan after school when he was 23, inspired by Stash and Futura and offered by the older brother of a friend in exchange for a painting, was undertaken with the simple idea of “going there to live in a trailer park and become a ninja.”
While his five meter Companion has been sitting with his head in his hands everywhere from Harbour City in Hong Kong to the Standard Hotel, KAWS sees the future a little bit like Superman. “I’d like to make a plane, a boat, a building. It goes on and on,” he says.