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Brian Donnelly, pictured here at his AGO exhibit in September, says, “My story is kind of hard to tell in just a museum space but I feel like it’s at least a seed planter that will kind of lead to people exploring more.”Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In the early 1990s, the American street artist Brian Donnelly, who works under the moniker KAWS, was gifted an illicit master key that could unlock almost any advertising display in Manhattan. Not long after, New Yorkers began noticing cartoonish figures meticulously painted atop upscale ads in bus stations and billboards across the city.

Review: KAWS reaches for feeling in the midst of irony

Notably, these “subvertisements” were not conceived as a commentary on consumption. Rather, Donnelly co-opted the medium as a means to grow his audience.

“I started to think about the parallels between advertisers and graffiti,” Donnelly recalled recently. “They were both jockeying for the best locations and how to communicate to the broadest audience. That led me down the rabbit hole.”

Over the next 25 years, Donnelly would continue piggy-backing mainstream culture in different ways, becoming arguably the most popular – but also the most critically maligned – contemporary artist of his generation. This month, his reach gets amplified even more in Canada, as the Art Gallery of Ontario is set to present a cross section of his work in its exhibition, KAWS: FAMILY.

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FINAL DAYS (2015), AT THIS TIME, (2013) and ALONG THE WAY, (2013) on display for the exhibition KAWS: FAMILY, at the Art Gallery of Ontario.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Employing a small canon of cartoon figures that recall the pop cultural touchstones of his youth – including Mickey Mouse, The Simpsons, the Michelin Man and Grover – mostly rendered with bulging foreheads and crossed out eyes, Donnelly has deftly defied art world conventions, swinging madly between fashion, branding and beaux arts. Along the way, he’s captured a following that includes cultural taste-making icons who aren’t concerned with who has or hasn’t been shown at the latest Biennale. It’s no coincidence that KAWS figures made an appearance in a Drake music video long before being featured by any Canadian museum.

Throughout his career, Donnelly’s characters, chiefly his calling card figure – a dour riff on Mickey Mouse he calls “Companion” – have had a veritable multiverse of existences. The character has appeared in collaborations with brands that include Dior, Supreme and Uniqlo. It’s been turned into figurines, pins, toys, MTV Movie Award statuettes, 30-ft-tall bronze sculptures, and a float for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Recently, it’s even found a home as digital avatars available in Augmented Reality and the video game Fortnite.

Such a seamless melding of traditional and commercial worlds has earned Donnelly comparisons to Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. But, he said, he sees himself equally in line with graphic artists such as Rick Griffin and Raymond Pettibon, whose poster work with the Grateful Dead and logo creation for the punk band Black Flag have become canonical pop cultural touchstones around the world.

This eschewing of cultural prestige and a generally passive attitude toward presenting a tangible point of view has made Donnelly an undeniable force, his work recently fetching auction prices into the tens of millions. It’s also made him a critical punching bag.

“KAWS is definitely an interesting figure,” says Warhol biographer and New York Times contributing critic Blake Gopnik. “Whether he’s an interesting artist or not is another question.”

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Donnelly is photographed beside his work at the AGO.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

On a recent September afternoon, AGO deputy director and chief curator Julian Cox was walking around the FAMILY exhibition as crews were working on installing its 75 works, which include murals, sketches, paintings and sculptures.

Taking advantage of a break in the assembly, Cox stopped to admire a wall of ink-on-paper sketches, which, he explained, Donnelly used as a base for his works before they were either brought to a larger scale, or fabricated.

Continuing on, he noted the fine linework and balanced use of shadow across several acrylic works on canvas. In another room, he walked up to an eight-foot stainless steel Companion sculpture sporting a spacesuit.

“That’s going to be the showstopper,” Cox said.

For the AGO, presenting an artist that so clearly represents the zeitgeist offers an opportunity to learn more about the institution’s rapidly shifting audience.

“We’re trying to find and sculpt a program that is experimental in some ways,” Cox explained. “I think museums more and more have to operate that way.”

By showing his works at the AGO, Donnelly is experimenting as well. Sure, exhibiting at an art museum is an undeniable validation after years spent being rejected from the establishment – his first foray into an art institution was when the gift shop at Manhattan’s New Museum stocked his toys – but it’s also a new way to be exposed to audiences beyond relying on the hypebeasts that have built his following on social media.

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NEW MORNING (2012), by KAWS.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

“I’m excited by the idea of getting my paintings and sculptures in front of people, not just having them see it online. Or, you know, a JPEG or in printed in a magazine,” Donnelly said. “My story is kind of hard to tell in just a museum space, but I feel like it’s at least a seed planter that will kind of lead to people exploring more.”

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ACCOMPLICE (2010), by KAWS.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In coming across a Companion online, or hearing about the US$15-million KAWS Album painting that was supposedly purchased by Justin Bieber, it would be understandable to question whether Donnelly is genuine when he insists he’s not making a commentary on pop culture. However, walking through the exhibition, which stretches across three galleries, Donnelly’s goal to create works that are universally relatable comes across more clearly.

“I find that 90 per cent of what’s written about me is about the market,” he lamented. “But really, I love the idea of reaching people in unexpected ways, and hopefully, creating a bridge between them and art in general.”

Working in the language of cartoonish pop cultural figures, Donnelly proposes, is a key part of accomplishing that.

“For me, instead of painting humans, I use these forms. If I were to make human sculptures at 10 metres it might be horrifying but somehow these monumental things are embraced and almost feel like you need to comfort them.”

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KAWS' installation SPACE (2021).Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

KAWS: FAMILY is the latest in a series of pop-art exhibitions at the AGO, which reopened in 2021 with a Warhol retrospective and is set to follow FAMILY with the touring exhibition Keith Haring: Art is for Everybody.

However, warns critic Blake Gopnik, while these artists are engaging with similar themes, audiences should be cautious in grouping them together. “He’s a fundamentally wildly old-fashioned figure,” Gopnik says of Donnelly. “In larger art historical terms, he’s really embraced a very conservative view of what art is, in that his fundamental goal is to make things that you look at and say, ‘Wow, isn’t that cool?’ It’s essentially aesthetic in a really traditional sense, which puts him very far from Andy Warhol, or Jeff Koons, or even Damien Hirst.”

Faced with such criticism, Donnelly is unfazed.

“Whether somebody’s calling something art or something not art, it’s really not something I bother with,” he said. “Some of my favourite pieces are Robert Crumb book covers. Talk till you’re blue in the face, you’re not gonna convince me that that’s any less art than old master drawings.”

Besides, he suggests, the critics are missing the point. If the reach is the message, then the closer one can find oneself to an aesthetic that is universally relatable, the more meaningful it is.

In other words, to borrow from another pop cultural figure, 4.4 million Instagram followers can’t be wrong.

“I think we’re at a point where art institutions are trying to understand global cultural movements,” Donnelly offered. “If it weren’t to be sort of investigated within the museum framework, I think that they’d be losing sight of a large movement.”

KAWS: FAMILY runs at the AGO from Sept. 27, 2023, to March 31, 2024

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