The graffiti artist known for his work in New York in the 90s takes on sculpture for a new global audience
Brian Donnelly aka KAWS has been a recognisable part of the New York art scene since the 1990s. His early painting work blurred the lines between graffiti, fine art, branding and commerce, affording him a global platform of collaborators with which to expand his mark commercially and artistically. His most recent piece is a touring, hunched monolith titled Companion (Passing Through), based off a smaller toy sculpture from the KAWS archives. Companion currently resides in front of the Standard Hotel in New York through October, having made stops in Hong Kong and Connecticut for widely different environments and audiences.
Dazed Digital: Where does the “Passing Through” part of the title come from?
Brian Donnelly: When I was asked to make the piece for Harbour City, there was a height restriction of five metres, so I wanted to make something that looked like it could be eight metres tall when it stood up. It was going to be on a really busy street with millions of people passing by; some of those people are on vacation, some of them are just shopping, not really expecting to see art or interact. So it’s sort of like me having a moment there and them having a moment and then it being gone a month later.
DD: With this particular character, when you made it in the 90s, what was the relationship you wanted people to have to it?
Brian Donnelly: I made it when I was coming out of painting over the advertisements and phone booths and bus shelter kiosks. At the time I was working over these recognisable images like Turlington CK images or different sorts of advertisements that were everywhere globally. When I got the chance to do a toy I wanted to affect a known image in the same way. I referenced Mickey Mouse, which is not the only mouse in history, but it was the most daunted so it claimed that form.
DD: Now that you’re no longer able to hold it in the palm of your hand does it have a different feeling?
Brian Donnelly: Definitely. You can walk past a person a thousand times on the street sitting in that pose and not think twice. It’s just typical New York, shit happens. When you put something that’s usually presented as a sort of positive loveable form and you put it in a contemplative pose like that I think it really makes people think ‘What is that about? What’s on his mind?’
DD: Do you feel comfortable identifying yourself as a pop artist? Is that something that you feel aligned with?
Brian Donnelly: I wouldn’t say I feel comfortable, I don’t think anybody really likes labels. I don’t go out trying to present myself as a movement that started in the 50s or 60s. It’s something that people apply easily. For me I just feel like I’m just making work; I don’t look to fit into a mold of something else. I work across a lot of different mediums, there are people that might only know the work from the toys that I create or the products or the graffiti so they’ll be calling me a graffiti artist.
DD: What attracted you to graffiti in the beginning?
Brian Donnelly: When I was younger, like late elementary into high school, it was just something kids were doing and a way to interact with different kids. Kind of like playing sports but with other like-minded kids who were into painting.
DD: How does this relate to your graffiti work? Do you consider this graffiti or site specific art installation?
Brian Donnelly: It has really nothing to do with graffiti. That was a thing that I did in the past but I don’t see how this work can relate to that really much at all. Other than this being on the street and people being in front of it without really going and looking for it.