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Sublime Pap Or How I learned to stop worrying and love the KAWS


21 April 2020

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness 20 September 2019—13 April 2020

“It is almost enough, but not quite, to make you forgive the huge statue by KAWS in the foyer. It’s weird that the same institution can put on something so sublime in one space and such vapid pap in another.”
— Rex Butler, Collecting Comme.

I have hesitated for some time before throwing my hat into this particular ring. This ring is of course the seventh circle of Hell known to the public as the KAWS show at the NGV which officially closed on the unholy date of April the 13th (although the gallery has been shut for some time due to plague conditions). I hesitated at first because of a certain laziness with regard to taste. Who cares if the scholars and artists – who have long since become one and the same class anyway – understand this show? And secondly, because of a certain cowardice with regard to airing what seems to be a blasphemous opinion. And thirdly, because of how predictably contrarian it is to blaspheme good taste. By now we know that the race to find the most obscure artist’s artist always ends in disappointment. And that disappointment leads us to advocate for the most deranged and populist nonsense we can find. Bad art has always made for edgy opinions. And in Melbourne in particular, where bad taste and kitsch reign supreme, the statement “KAWS was the best show I saw this year” is par for the course. Nonetheless I will press on in spite of or perhaps because of such dangers.

To talk about the politics of the blockbuster show is dull. We have all heard the critique of the spectacle, whether in Guy Debord’s initial iteration of the concept in his book from 1967 or in the writing of a thousand copy-cat theorists it has spawned. For Debord spectacular society marks the point where the commodity form is perfected in the image. He writes, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Whether or not we buy his wider economic analysis is hardly important because all that remains of his critique within artistic discourse is the word spectacle. And it was as if the KAWS show was designed to incite such critique and indeed, as Debord himself would say, it probably is. Spectacular society for Debord is masterful at recuperating and marketing its own denunciation as a commodity.

KAWS in this sense is the spectacular artist par excellence. The letters that make up the word KAWS don’t mean anything, they don’t stand for anything, they are as all tags are language becoming image. No wonder Debord was so frightened, his beloved medium of philosophy, which he believed was destined to lead humanity to freedom, was getting trounced by billboards and magazines. As a committed Hegelian-Marxist Debord was perplexed—what had gone wrong? Well let’s just say KAWS happened. In other words, mass consumption became something more than just an economic imperative. It was transfigured into a religious rite—something entwined with our most fervent desires and inseparable from breathing or eating. Or as Debord moans, “the spectacle is the material rebuilding of religious illusion.” In other words, all hail the second coming of our redeemer KAWS.

We are greeted upon entering the NGV foyer by the giant statue which Butler alludes to in the above quotation. It is undeniably ridiculous and yet nonetheless retains a certain solemnity. It is this collision of the ridiculous and the religious which dominates the show. A figure with crossed out cartoon eyes—which is the key KAWSian signature—holds a dead or dying Elmo. With Elmo’s head tossed back we recall, perhaps subconsciously the archaic gesture of the pietà and if we didn’t the handy informative plaque nearby is there to reminds us. It is the image of the Virgin holding the dead Christ whose most famous iteration was sculpted by Michelangelo. It is the melodrama of religious sculpture which is at stake here, the beauty of which an avowed atheist like Debord cannot ever really understand. It’s also very stupid (I dare say stupidity elevated to a fine art), which is another thing that, for an arch-rationalist like Debord, is an anathema to not merely art but humanity itself.

But we must back pedal for a moment. I was completely unaware of who KAWS was until he appeared on Justin Bieber’s Instagram story. The show provides the uninitiated with a serviceable potted history of KAWS in its first room through a series of stunning prints of photos of his initial tags on the streets of New York City. We learn that KAWS emerged from the fertile commercial pastures of the graffiti scene of New York in the 1990s and can be broadly grouped with the Beautiful Losers—or professional slackers, canonised in the 2004 exhibition and 2008 film of the same name. Like Stephen Espo J. Powers or Shepard Obey Fairey and other members of this so-called scene, KAWS represents for many the degeneration of an authentic New York street culture associated with Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery and the East Side in the 1980s. For these nostalgic souls KAWS is the Giuliani of graffiti who, like Banksy in Britain, marks the canonisation and institutionalisation of graff as “street art”. But weren’t Haring and Basquiat, who are now on show at the NGV, also obsessed with success? Didn’t they too seek to become international megabrands and market their work to the ecstatic masses?

The notion that KAWS has sold out from his initial commitment to “culture jamming”—the rather quaint 90s update of Debord’s notion of detournement—is wildly inaccurate. As KAWS himself notes, “I liked the [advertising] images. I painted over them because they were omnipresent.” KAWS, then Brian Donnelly, studied illustration at New York’s School of Visual Art receiving a BFA in 1996. He then worked as an illustrator for cartoons such as Daria and Doug. In the exhibition’s first room things begin to become clear. Here is an institutionally trained artist, aware of the history of art (he cites Oldenburg and Richter as key references), fiendishly talented as an illustrator, with just enough ties to graff subculture to give off a whiff of authenticity. A subculture that had long since lost any real underground status but which remained an important marketing tool in the late 1990s. It soon becomes clear that KAWS is the model for the artist of the millennium. In him will be incarnated that unholy trinity—graphic designer, art historian, entrepreneur—which has come to define any artist whose success propels them out of the ghetto of contemporary art and into the public consciousness.

And boy, are the public interested in KAWS. In the days leading up to visiting the show I began to notice KAWSian motifs everywhere. On t-shirts, tote bags and caps, the KAWS tag is everywhere, whether in the form of Sesame Street style lettering or the dead-eyed cartoon. What the KAWS show makes violently apparent is that the logic of branding and tagging are inseparable. This observation is hardly original but organised in these rooms this logic begins to take the form of a kind of mania as we traipse through the show. Indeed, this is the principal KAWSian gesture—batter the viewer into submission with an image because subtlety is for the old and the dull.

The KAWS machine is not merely ambitious but hungry. It seeks to consume everything and recreate the world in its own image. In these rooms every conceivable cartoon is dragged inexorably into the KAWSian canon—Disney, The Simpsons, Pokemon, Sponge Bob, all are conscripted in this multicoloured assault on the eye. In doing so we have a genealogy of the cartoon itself, an object often used within fine art to allegorise capital. The cartoon operates, like the value form, through the power of equivalence—Mickey’s glove transforms into a hammer and then a propeller and then back again. For critics like Benjamin Buchloh the scrawling of Raymond Pettibon represented the dark critical underside to Pop Art’s celebratory embrace of the cartoon and the comic strip. But KAWS moves against both the Pop and critical currents. His success is further evidence that death is no longer repressed by capital but is triumphantly celebrated as its increasingly volatile motor. If Pettibon sought to unearth capital’s violent unconscious, in KAWS this unconscious is merrily on display and we the public dance along to the tune of our own dismemberment. Its power is undoubtedly in part due to the cartoons we can barely recall, images from hazy childhood afternoons spent in front of the TV dimly recorded in the recesses of our memory.

That the show is designed to be photographed in front of is another truism that hardly bears repeating. The same logic dominates the Terracotta Warriors show which was running earlier last year and it’s difficult not to make comparisons at least in regards to their shared curatorial logic. Both shows are designed with the Chinese market in mind and both are elaborately designed photo opportunities. But while the warriors suffer from becoming props in a hall of mirrors, KAWS panoply of colourful characters shine in this setting. The characters have names like Companion, Accomplice, Chum or BFF. At the end of the exhibition there are a series of Morning Glory-style photobooths so we can actually become KAWS—cross out our eyes and cover our mouths with enormous gloves. Ostensibly the show is “about” our atomised and alienated subjectivity at the mercy of technology and consumption. The show’s title, Companionship in the Age of Loneliness, hammers that home for all those who might have missed it. Whoever has written the descriptions for these works has really outdone themselves. It’s comedy of the driest and most ironic kind, something close to a Douglas Huebler comic strip or an Andrea Fraser performance piece. It reaches its apogee in a statement by the NGV’s head curator of contemporary art Simon Maidment who describes KAWS as “a great kind of humanist, who is engaging on quite an emotional level with people.” A wonderful and hilarious conceit which also happens to be true.

But when it comes to the rest of the rooms my memory is rather scattered. Debord describes the spectacle as, “the absolute mastery of memory”. Or in this case memory’s absolute demolition. This is amnesiac art of the highest order which thrives on the entwinement of photographability and forgetfulness. I dimly recall taking photos of my friend Matthew in front of statues of KAWS. I vaguely remember that the characters are always in baroque pathetic postures, covering their mouths and their eyes in gestures of submission. Predictably we begin to photograph others taking photographs. But any sense of ironic distance has by this time been utterly eroded. We are at the mercy of a higher power. We are being guided by something else. We have learnt to stop worrying and love the KAWS.

When we emerge from this orgiastic frenzy and check the photos we have taken, what strikes us is the way this fiendish logic of appropriation masterfully combines pop culture images with a fine art nous. That is not to say these references are necessarily direct ones but rather they allow us to believe in the appropriateness of canonising a glorified branding agent. These statues, paintings, digital collages and ornaments all look like art. This is in part the result of their appearance in a gallery which, as theorist Thierry De Duve never ceases to remind us, is an automatic canonising machine. But it’s also because of their uncanny use of art historical tropes and references.

One room features a couch made out of dead Snoopys. It could easily pass for one of Mike Kelley’s soft toy works, although it is Kelley through the eyes of a designer and hence not Kelley at all. And of course, the blown-up statues remind us of Oldenburg—and like Oldenburg whose key reference was the Macy’s Day Parade, KAWS understands that big is always better. This maximalist logic is an allegory of America itself, or of a more successful America, when American art really was at the forefront of the avant-garde. And while this is clearly no longer the case (does anyone really care about New York anymore?), we are reminded of the great evangelist Jeff Koons, perhaps the last American artist to really matter in a world-historical sense. And like Koons, his work is supremely collectible, in this case through a series of affordable vinyl statues, which are a slightly more up-market variation of the Pop! Vinyl dolls so popular amongst the more unfortunate slaves of the Disney merchandising empire. It’s all so celebratory and yet so canny that one finds it difficult to return to these canonical avant-garde strategies—seriality, appropriation, montage—without wondering if they were all merely preparatory moments leading up to their most effective realisation in the delicious monstrosity that is KAWS.

But other references feel a little closer to home. The cartoon collage paintings could easily have emerged from the VCA painting department in the last five years. They bear all the hallmarks of the post-Helen Johnson obsession with the cartoon and the caricature, conscripted in a desperate attempt to paint one’s way out of the dead-end of neo-formalism. The statues too are reminiscent of the rash of 3D printed “critical design” works that have inundated us in recent times—indeed, I was often reminded of the Greatest Hits show at West Space in 2018 but without any of that show’s clunky attempts at criticality. Even the murky subcultural origins of KAWS in the graffiti scene is a hallmark of the young institutionalised Melbourne artist who longs for an exit from a stifling education through a quasi-mystical glorification of the poetry of the street.

That the entire exhibition is really a long line for the gift shop once more strikes us as a pathetically inadequate cliché. It is much more than this. We do not simply walk through KAWS. We are herded. It is an exhilarating feeling, succumbing to the Baudelairean allure of drowning oneself in the crowd. Indeed, it was a rather similar feeling to attending the Climate Strike in September, except instead of being surrounded by selfrighteous activists one was instead part of an army of hype-beast clad international students. The correlation between the popularity of Off White (Virgil Abloh’s empire of fake fashion chic) and KAWS is not accidental either. Both have managed to tap into the hearts and minds of the greatest consumer culture in history, namely post-socialist China. A video has been circulating online which shows Chinese KAWS fans fighting as they try to score a new T-shirt. There is an entire story about the rise and domination of streetwear to be told here for which I do not have the time nor the patience. But the KAWS collaboration with Uniqlo for this show is merely the tip of a very deep and treacherous iceberg that includes collaborations with everyone from Nike to Dior as well as his own label Original Fake. In fact, given Butler’s favourable review of the radical aesthetics of NGV’s Comme show he might be surprised to learn that KAWS has also collaborated with Comme’s own dreadful streetwear label, Play.

But we must return to the scene of the crime. The line for the gift shop is tense. Everyone eagerly awaits their little piece of KAWS. A salesperson disguised as a gallery attendant emerges to tell us that certain items have sold out. A worried murmur runs through the crowd. Everyone busily checks their phones to see what still remains and to check the resale price on Grailed. This is the most exciting moment in the show. For all its zany morbidity the work remains utterly forgettable. But such outmoded notions of value such as memory do not apply to KAWS. We are dealing with an art of ephemera at its most sophisticated. Attempts to theorise this entire show as an example of the “experience economy” seem overly simplistic. Or rather one cannot theorise away the joy of consumption, the thrill of the chase, or the pleasure of receiving a like on a photo with KAWS.

Walter Benjamin remains one of the few Marxists to have understood the utopian power of the commodity which contains within it the dream of a transformed world. Benjamin also understood its religious quality, noting the manner in which consumption “proscribes the ritual according to which the commodity fetish wishes to be worshipped.” The Kawsian souvenir is, as Benjamin noted, “a secularised relic” and the saintly relic of course “comes from the corpse.” It seems only death can be worshipped today. And submission and surrender to an all-powerful deity is exhilarating. Today we struggle to account for the religiosity of capital. And KAWS by any other name would be capital. And, like capital, it appears very unlikely that KAWS is going away any time soon.

It is telling that the only other phenomenon that comes close to the grandeur and majesty of KAWS is Socialist Realist monuments, which Warhol famously described as akin to pop artworks. The problem is that until the left can provide an alternative that is as seductive, demonic and, yes, beautiful as KAWS, we will remain trapped here. Perhaps the inability to understand KAWS stands for a greater historical amnesia—an incapacity to understand why we will our own oppression rather than will nothing at all. Why we are still in awe of monuments and statues and sneakers and collectibles. It certainly points to a greater malaise within aesthetic judgement—lacking a shared formal language, we cannot really talk about why we like the art we like. Instead, we wrap ourselves in a cloak of philosophical and artistic references in the hope that this proximity will provide us with protection from the outside world. Position-taking around taste is nothing new but this phenomenon reaches its zenith today in the absurd fear of young artists who don’t want their references stolen.

The KAWSian cartoon with its dead eyed stare, painfully aware that it is merely a pathetic variation on an existing theme, is perhaps the greatest portrait of the contemporary artist and critic today. We cower behind our good taste and our barely concealed disdain for the masses all the while parading our political radicality in verbose artist statements and exegeses. KAWS himself remains absolutely immune to this kind of neurosis. He has found peace with capital. Or better yet, he has made a devilish pact with it. To attain eternal life in this way is also to invite eternal death and this show, which makes of death a pageant and a festival, is wonderfully appropriate. Until the day we are liberated by the critical theorists and social activists, we must find our joy somewhere. And I for one think the KAWS show is an essential ritual for those of us who still thirst for a taste of the sacred.