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GONE, a sculpture by KAWS.Courtesy the artist

The American artist KAWS once said that the reason he appropriated popular cartoon characters, from the Simpsons to Bugs Bunny, was for their accessibility, calling the figures’ familiarity “an entry point.” And yet, as the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto unveils KAWS’ first Canadian museum show, a critic has to ask: an entry point to what?

Yes, KAWS’ now-celebrated figures do more than merely reproduce their sources as he features them in brightly coloured paintings and large-scale sculptures. With the body of Mickey Mouse, a skull for a head and Xs for eyes, his Companion is an Everyman, posed as a protective parent sheltering a child, a mourner carrying a body or a solo figure forced into COVID isolation. These are universal experiences but hardly complex, the art offering the most simple of emotional observations about human relationships.

KAWS, the pseudonym Brian Donnelly originally took as a teenage graffitist in the early 1990s, began the transition to fine art in the early 2000s. He started with the characters from Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, giving them those skull-like heads and X eyes, and renaming them the Kimpsons.

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KAWS' sculpture GOOD INTENTIONS is displayed at the exhibition KAWS: FAMILY, in the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto, on Sept. 25.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In the AGO show, generously spread over several second-floor galleries by chief curator Julian Cox, the theme is “family.” In an amusing painting from 2004, the Kimpsons characters have removed their new heads and exchanged them: Bart and Lisa toss each other’s in the air like balls; Homer holds baby Maggie’s head while she crawls along the floor with Marge’s distinctive blue beehive. So, there is a clever query here of family roles, and of artists too: Are they interchangeable?

Two decades later, these much-repeated appropriations, now including the Muppets and the Michelin Man, have been built into a slick practice of flatter themes. In larger-than-life bronze sculptures painted to create the pristine matte surface of some commercial object, Companion carries a blue Muppet-like toy and, in another, the big fuzzy monster carries a toy Companion. The first is called Share, the second Take. In a series of works inspired by the pandemic, one sculpture features Companion sitting with his face in his hands while another shows him carrying the corpse of a pink Muppet. Fluorescent paintings of Chum (the Michelin Man with the skull head) show the figure trapped in a prison cell or adrift at sea.

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'Landscape' paintings by KAWS based on Simpsons characters on display on Sept. 25.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

One enduring (and frequently annoying) characteristic of The Simpsons is its smart-aleck cynicism. The original Kimpsons pieces successfully expanded that into a larger statement about art, making a virtue out of doubled irony, but KAWS’s work has since evolved into a practice where the actual content seems oddly sincere. Parents try their best; many of us feel alone; companions offer comfort. There is an unresolved tension here between the slickness of the art and the simplicity of the themes as the artist’s postmodern sophistication battles with his sentimentality.

There is still plenty of cynicism, however, in the artist’s cheerful embrace of commodification as he designs colourful sneakers for Nike and packaging for Reese’s Puffs where Companion’s skull can be seen floating in the cereal bowl. Andy Warhol at his best – and in his later years he often wasn’t – could simultaneously critique popular culture and profit from it. KAWS’s update on pop art’s enduring desire to have its cake and eat it too is an unlikely reach for feeling in the midst of deeply ironic gestures. Other than noting that candy disguised as breakfast cereal drives a protective parent bonkers, I don’t know what designing the box for such a product has to do with family, but KAWS is the artist for the job.

KAWS: FAMILY continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario to March 31.

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FAMILY, a 2021 sculpture by KAWS.Courtesy the artist

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