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Critical Review

A series of 9 circular prints, The News by KAWS captures his typically acidic palette and offers glimpses of some of his signature cartoon characters. The pieces were made by the critically acclaimed American artist and designer, KAWS (born Brian Donnelly), who rose to fame in the late 1990s through his experimentation with art and design and ability to bridge the gap between street art and high art. By 2017, KAWS had become a prominent artist, whose work was recognised all over the world. The artist had developed a strong global following and worked with prominent celebrities such as Kanye West and Pharrell Williams, as well as notable brands like Nike, Comme des Garcon and Uniqlo.

The prints in The News stand out from other collections made by KAWS due to their circular shape. The artist tends to privilege more conventional rectangular canvases, as seen in KAWS’ later collection of screen prints, Tension. The print designs in The News are abstract and bold. KAWS uses bright and vibrant colours which resonate with Andy Warhol’s use of colour in his Pop Art prints from the 1960s. The prints showcase KAWS’ unique artistic style which favours bold, gestural lines, an emphasis on colour, and distinctive graphics, such as the repeated use of crosses. The prints appear to be close-up sections of KAWS’ cartoon characters, however the isolated body parts are hard to discern amidst the medley of shapes and colours.

KAWS’ style can be traced back to his time spent spray painting buildings in New Jersey, where the artist grew up. It was through tagging buildings that KAWS, (born Brian Donnelly), came up with his professional name, which the artist still goes by today. The combination of letters, which are in fact devoid of any meaning or significance, were chosen by KAWS due to the way they looked together and their appealing visual balance. Discussing his name, KAWS explains, “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,”.

KAWS is often compared to Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two leading 20th century artists who emerged from the New York City graffiti subculture of the 1980s. Much like these artists, KAWS first gained notoriety amongst the graffiti world. The artist continued evolving his graffiti skills in New York where he attended the School of Visual Arts and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration in 1996. It was in New York that KAWS developed a practise called ‘subvertising’, which involved the artist unlocking advert cases in phone booths, train stations and bus shelters around New York in order to draw over the adverts with his own comic graffiti inspired designs. KAWS developed a set of figurative cartoon characters, which still appear frequently in his artworks today, which he would incorporate into the adverts, wrapping the figures around products and making them interact with models. KAWS’ Models collection captures the essence of his subvertising and the way the artist would deface the faces of models by adding his signature skull and crossbone design, crossed out eyes and Mickey Mouse hands.

The creation of KAWS’ vast stock of cartoon characters and repeated graphic motifs also resonates strongly with Haring’s work and his impressive collection of repeated icons and motifs, such as the radiant baby, angel, flying devil and barking dog. The artist’s affinity with the screen printing technique and his interest in exploring popular culture through art has also led to comparisons between KAWS and Andy Warhol, the leading figure of the Pop Art movement.