And Downs

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Critical Review

KAWS’ Ups and Down series was first displayed at his eponymously titled exhibition in 2013, epitomising his now-acclaimed visual style. In 2013 his significant work was fetching 6 figures, and he was embarking on his fifth museum show in just three years. KAWS also had shows on three separate continents, as well as his large-scale intervention show at PAFA which saw 60 of his pieces hung alongside historical masterworks.

The Ups And Downs series is composed of sizable silkscreens, printed onto thick white paper. They are part of an edition of 100 plus 20 artist prints. Each print is signed, numbered and dated in pencil by the artist. The works were published and printed by KAWS in New York. Produced and presented in the typically slick style synonymous with KAWS, the prints were each issued with a title page and black cloth covered portfolio case emblazoned with black writing.

The portrait style framed format is reminiscent of KAWS’ street-based interventions of the late 1990s, where he would paint onto advertising posters that were encased on the sides of phone boxes and bus stops in acrylic. For KAWS, the advertising box represents privileged access for big spending brands (much like the gallery frame), which elevates its contents in the consumer’s eyes and the artist’s painting by association.

The subject of the works in Ups And Downs is intimate. Each print is a snapshot or awkward screengrab of a cartoonish figurative scene that requires interpretation. The striking compositions demonstrate KAWS’ preoccupation with the challenge of existence but also contrast with his more clear-cut imagery. There are frenetic, anarchic and surrealist qualities in these works – tongues wag, teeth snap, eyes flap, fingers and fists whirl. The viewer is reminded of KAWS’ work in animation and the fact that beneath the cooler, cross eyed surface of his work there is a restless mind that is full of invention and psychological activity. There is a clear restlessness and aggression in these works that make them stand out in the wider context of KAWS’ career.

Why is the Ups and Downs series important?

The colour scheme used in Ups And Downs is alarming, with bodily colours of red, pink and yellow featuring prominently. KAWS’ trademark crossed eyes (mostly red) feature in all but one piece. One of the more clearly discernible gestures in this series is a hand concealing something in the image without crossed eyes. Next to it there is a screaming mouth with a tongue zigzagging out of teeth bared. The action of teeth biting down on something soft and flesh-like is felt strongly.

The name of the series, Ups And Downs, suggests a balance of forces, both positive and negative. The overall impression, however, is more down than up. Smiles are demonic, and the viewer senses a darkness lying behind social masks.

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