NO FUTURE COMPANION, a collaboration figure with Japanese illustrator Hajime Sorayama which was produced by Medicom Toy/Original Fake. The figure comes at the end of a three year process that started with Sorayama’s painted interpretation of KAWS’ iconic Companion figure in 2006. From there, KAWS and Medicom set forth with turning the image into a fully pose-able metal figure that comes on a removable stand. Check the jump for images of the KAWS x Hajime Sorayama NO FUTURE COMPANION as well as the original Sorayama illustration that was the base of the collaboration. $980, kawsone.com, sorayama.com

By Bradley Carbone; Photography by Kai Regan

Over the course of a career that has variously infuriated anti-graffiti task force officers and enthralled Japanese street couture collectors — meaning winning props from hip-hop superstars Kanye West and Pharrell Williams — the pop artist KAWS has carved a unique niche for himself. The soft-spoken 34-year-old Jersey City native, born Brian Donnelly, created a new business model that bridges the high-low culture divide in ways that would have made steam come out of Andy Warhol’s ears.

By parlaying vandalism into a brand identity as a purveyor of mass-produced collectible toys, KAWS became a bona fide subculture celebrity with a recognizable presence in street fashion.

But now, KAWS is at a career turning point. In spite of his renown in subcultural circles (which galleristas and museum directors have historically snobbed), he is now being mentioned in the same breath as pop art luminaries, such as Takashi Murakami, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons. And while KAWS has proven himself perfectly capable of trafficking his own pop offerings — on skateboard decks, stickers, T-shirts and sneakers — KAWS has infiltrated the rarefied world of institutional art after being held at arm’s distance from it for much of his career. Pretty fly for a graf guy.

“When I grew up, I never thought I could enter a gallery,” KAWS said over lunch at Chateau Marmont this week. “I looked at them as these pretentious places that did not welcome me.”

On the heels of two exhibitions of his work at the Gering & Lopez Gallery in New York and Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Miami last year, an exhibition of KAWS’ paintings and sculptures is set to open at Honor Fraser Gallery in Culver City tonight. “I Can’t Feel My Face,” a group show the artist curated, opens at the Royal/T gallery, also in Culver City, on Sunday. Later this year, KAWS’ art will be included in a group show called “Plastic Culture” at London’s Harris Museum and Art Gallery. And KAWS is scheduled to show new works in a solo show at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Connecticut in December 2010.

“Brian made the realization there’s no distinction between the making of the art and placing it in the wider culture,” said Harry Philbrick, director of the Aldrich. “It fits within a long tradition in the art world: Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, artists who wanted to take art outside the confines of the museum and engage with the wider culture. Sometimes in commercial ways, sometimes in subversive ways.”

Unlike Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat, who were never accepted in the fraternity of hard-core graffiti artists, KAWS is an unreconstructed graffiti “writer” whose aerosol handiwork defaced billboards, freight trains and water towers.

But that changed in 1996 when one of his graffiti peers — Barry McGee, a.k.a. Twist, another graf guy turned successful pop artist — gave KAWS a skeleton key that opened up the glass advertising boxes on the sides of phone booths and bus kiosks. Concurrent with studying design and illustration at New York’s School of Visual Arts, KAWS stopped writing his name on walls and began altering ads. He would steal ad posters and paint over them with a visual shorthand of symbols — cartoon skulls with X-ed out eyes and serpentine spermatazoan shapes in pastel colors. Then he would carefully replace them.

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Of all the artists in the Complex universe, none wields more influence than 34-year-old Brian Donnelly, a.k.a. KAWS. Starting with his street graffiti work in the ’90s, and evolving to clothing collaborations and toys, the Jersey-raised Brooklyn rep has managed to walk the line between art and commercialism and still be respected. Over the past year he’s created the cover for Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, debuted exhibitions at major NYC and L.A. galleries, and seen his clothing line, Original Fake, kill it globally. In short, the man is Style and Design. Check out the extended online cut of the magazine interview…
You’ve been ding more exhibitions recently; what motivated that move?

KAWS: As far as exhibiting work, that’s newer, but I’ve been painting nonstop since the ‘90s. I started doing commissions early on for Nigo [of A Bathing Ape], and later, for Pharrell. That made it easy, because I like to sell the work to people who know what I’m doing and to people who I respect.

So you were essentially able to skip the whole exhibition step in the art hustle and work directly with collectors from the start.

KAWS: Well, I learned to be guarded with where I exhibited my stuff. I grew up under Futura and Dondi White; CRASH was one of my best friends. They were all glamorized during the ’80s in the art scene, and then it dropped them. [The art] is kind of like a kid, or like letting someone watch your pet: You want to be careful with where it winds up.


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