Do you remember the Pokémon GO smartphone game that the whole world was at one point so crazy about? What was unusual about that game was the use of AR, that is Augmented Reality. It is a modern technology that blends the real and the computer-generated world. Using the application, players would hunt for Pokemon that were out there, in a real-life environment, but only when looking at the world through the screen of their phone.
AR technology is also used in art. KAWS is one such artist who created in 2020 a virtual variation of his most famous sculpture Companion and transferred it to the real world. The huge, several-meters-long figure of the cartoon hero with his hands covering his face was simultaneously displayed in Hong Kong, on the Thames in London, over the Times Square in New York and over the world’s most famous crossroads in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. However, the sculpture was only visible through a free phone app and this unusual exhibition lasted merely a dozen or so days. That is unless you bought a virtual sculpture (for real money), in which case you could put it anywhere you wanted to and enjoy the work in the unique AR technology.
KAWS is an extremely interesting artist for several reasons. He became famous for his cartoon characters, both small and large scale, loved by art connoisseurs and children alike. The already mentioned sculpture Companion is an obvious reference to none other than Mickey Mouse. But there are many more similar cartoon inspirations to be found in KAWS’s work. His sculptures and paintings “paraphrase” other popular heroes such as SpongeBob, Snoopy, the Michelin Man or the Simpson family.
The sculptures very often have x’s instead of eyes (suggesting the character isn’t among the living) or faces covered with hands in an expression of utter hopelessness. The cartoon characters in KAWS’s paintings look a bit as if they were put in a blender and then thrown onto the canvas, so that you can still recognize what character it is, but in this new version he or she has been badly damaged by life. It is the fun with pop culture, expressive colors and themes that are not associated with traditional art that make KAWS’s work often be compared to Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg, the latter known for his huge sculptures depicting food or everyday objects.
The works of KAWS are also an excellent example of the fact that art can enter our homes very freely and subtly, although not necessarily cheaply. This is with reference to KAWS’s collectible vinyl toys/figures which come in a variety of colors and sizes. And while no one will give their child a $3,000 toy to play with, a modern art lover having such a gadget may feel as happy as a child who just got for Christmas their favourite robot toy or a Barbie doll from the latest collection.
And how does KAWS, as an artist, justify his immense love for cartoon characters? Perhaps not without significance is the fact that, before Brian Donnelly became globally famous as KAWS, he worked as a cartoon animator at Disney.