From table-top toys to sculptures, graffiti to paintings, KAWS has created a captivating array of figures throughout his career. Contending with the likes of Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty to reach widespread cultural status, his figures have quite literally been floating around the world where widespread public consumption and rapidly appreciating collectorship value was inevitable.
With a visual language based on cartoons, his work possesses an uncanny familiarity as the caricatures we grew up with become increasingly unfamiliar with each of KAWS’ reiterations.
Here is a guide to KAWS’ vast multi-media cosmos and the characters within it.
Make way for KAWS’ most famed creation: Companion. When most people think of KAWS they conjure up visions of Companion – a melancholic Mickey Mouse figure often depicted with cross-glove hands covering his face or in similarly thoughtful positions. Like most of the artists’ characters, Companion has a morbid, yet playful look about him.
The familiarity of the Mickey Mouse tropes such as the white gloves, the boots and the large, brass-buttoned shorts alongside the contrasting skull cross bones and X eyes speaks to the figures’ thoughtful yet personable disposition. He lacks the idealism of regular cartoon characters and is instead “more real in dealing with human circumstances” said the artist, “he’s approachable.”
Companion was first introduced as an eight-inch toy figure in 1999 with Japanese brand Bounty Hunted. Over twenty years later, the figure has been seen in colossal sizes flying above the streets of New York at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, floating in Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, napping at the foot of Mount Fuji and holding court in Drake’s ‘Toosie Slide’ music video. The figure has taken many forms from inflatable to dissected statue.
In his latest endeavour, KAWS has naturally joined the digital art sphere with an augmented reality companion sculpture. Partnering with AR production company Acute Futures, the artist has allowed the public to summon digital Companion sculptures anywhere they please via a free app as the figure is able to live up to its name and become the public’s true and limitless companion.
In the late 1990s, the streets of Manhattan became home to KAWS’ first character, Bendy. Yet to make his name as an independent artist, Donnelly worked as an illustrator for Jumbo Pictures animation studio by day and continued his graffiti art by night. His walking route from office to home was trailed by multiple Bendys popping up on advertisement posters encased in phone booths and bus stops. An act of disruption and ‘subvertisement’, the artist would break into bus and phone shelters in broad daylight, take the posters home, and draw over them in the evening only to put them back in their shelters the next morning on his journey to work.
Undoubtedly KAWS’ most simple character, Bendy is a nimble creature described most effectively as a brightly coloured worm. Its playful charm is juxtaposed by sinister X-d out eyes and skull-and crossbones head – of which Bendy was one of the first of KAWS’ figures to assume - that would thereafter be a trademark of the artists’ work. The figures’ sinuous length appeared across the city’s advertisements slipping playfully around the bodies of supermodels like Christy Turlington and Calvin Klein perfume bottles. Bendy was trespassing on high-end fashion industry territory and was gaining booming recognition for doing so. Confessing he expected his Bendy graffiti work to be confronted by lawsuits, the artist was surprised to be met with what he considers his earliest institutional support. ID magazine wrote an article and introduced him to Paris boutique, Collette who then held an exhibition of his work. From there, Bendy has popped up in a variety of places notably on the front cover of a Kanye West album. With proliferating commercial and international opportunities, Bendy and his creator’s graffiti could encroach on cities further afield where KAWS’ figures and name could and would gain widespread iconicity.
Around the same time as Companion, Chum came onto the scene. A solid collector and fan favourite, if less grandiose, this friendly fellow is instantly recognisable for appropriating the adorable plump body of Bibendum, more commonly known as the Michelin Man. A tyre brand logo developed in the nineteenth century, KAWS said his inspiration from the symbol came from the cartoon being one of the first company logos to have a made-up cartoon-like personality. Chum has cropped up in acrylic on canvas and screen prints which maintained the artists’ street art roots with a markedly graphic style as well as being used in bold monochromatic public sculptures.
Chum has not only dominated the private auction block but has been exceedingly sought after on the luxury collector’s market too. Along with the famous vinyl toys that all of KAWS’ characters take form in, Chum appeared in a limited series of Supreme skate decks as well as being the first KAWS character to feature in a trainer collaboration with DC shoes. Fascinated by pop culture and the important discourse on the purpose of art, Chum extends the questions that underpin all of KAWS’ work concerning where and for whom art should exist.
Continuing to tap into notions of the whimsical and the profound, Accomplice has a playful yet depressed expression. A long and lanky bunny rabbit with bib, boots and gloves, his cute appearance is interrupted by the stern KAWS character face. Evoking bugs bunny with the pale and childlike block hues of Hello Kitty, Accomplice often takes adult-size sculptural form. In the words of specialist Noah Davis, “No cartoon is safe from being consumed and turned into a KAWS.”
To create this visually timid and simplistic figure, a complex process of sketching, translating to the round and 3D software modelling is used by the artist. Beginning in table-top toys, the artist has said that this was the only way he could realise his characters in 3D form. Developing them into larger sculptures his Accomplice figures are reminiscent of art historical figurative sculpture dating back to the Egyptian sarcophagi. Infusing humour into an intimidating display of morbidity, KAWS has been able to fashion a burgeoning fantastical world with figures like accomplice that reflect the necessary joys to be taken from the trials of our current times.