“When your whole art is based on the lettering you choose, you kinda figure out what ones work together. I just liked the shapes of the k, a, w, s,” – Brian Donnelly .

At a preview held by Phillips for their recent 20th Century and Contemporary art auctions, two pieces (Untiltled (2012) and Moving the Mirror (2010)) by Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly (American, b 1974.), better known as “KAWS”, somewhat divided opinion, with the wife of a well know politician commenting, “I think he’s trying to be Warhol”. Considered a “subculture hero”, Donnelly, like Andy Warhol, creates works that have mass appeal, using cartoon language to express deeply emotional themes and ideologies, that speak to audiences far beyond the museums and galleries in which he regularly exhibits.
Bearing many of the stylistic hallmarks of pop art, his prolific body of work – which includes paintings, murals, large-scale sculptures, street art, graphic and production design – straddles the worlds of fine art and commerce. “Brian has a serious connection to the history of art in the past 40 years,” says curator Michael Rooks, who organized Kaws: Down Time, an exhibition of the artist at the High Museum of Art in Georgia. “He’s voracious.”

After graduating with a BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Donnelly spent his early career working as a freelance animator for Disney (where he contributed to films such as 101 Dalmatians, Daria, and Doug), and as a graffiti artist in Jersey City, New Jersey, before moving to New York in the early 1990s. Donnelly first developed an interest in the codified language of commercial images through his experiments with “supervising” – a practice of parodying or spoofing corporate and political advertisements found on billboards, phone booths, and bus shelters.
Donnelly created public “interventions” by painting over advertising imagery with his own masterful acrylics of characters like Companion, Bendy and Accomplice, as well as his moniker KAWS. His subvertising has appeared in cities around the world, including London, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo, notable works include Untitled (Calvin Klein), Untitled (DKNY), and Christy Turlington Ad Disruption. As his notoriety grew, these “recovered ads” became increasingly sought after, and by 2008 they were selling for as much as $22,000 on eBay. Donnelly’s method of repeating iconic imagery is an attempt at making his characters universal to the point of ubiquitous, so that they’re instantly understandable to his audience, thus transcending both language and culture.

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