KAWS’s monumental Companion stands outside the Newcomb Art Museum on the campus of Tulane University, covering its eyes. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The blinded figure refers to the Japanese proverb of the three wise monkeys. The all-black sculpture is a lesson in denial, as if refusing to look might extinguish what there is to see. The playful figure brings us into a dark cartoon world that bursts into color once we step inside the gallery. The Newcomb show focuses on the work of KAWS, along with that of Chicago Imagist Karl Wirsum and Japanese artist Tomoo Gokita. All three studied illustration, all three twist their character subjects through abstraction, and all three use a hard-edge painting style that precludes any illusion of stepping into these cartoon worlds. The gambit of the show is that the works are entirely drawn from KAWS’s own art collection and testify to his artistic allegiances.
The name KAWS is the tag name of Brian Donnelly. This exhibition is the first curated by Monica Ramirez-Montagut since she became director of the museum, and changed the name from Newcomb Art Gallery to Newcomb Art Museum. In a talk, she discussed the importance of the skateboarding community to Donnelley’s development, the influence of graffiti, and his own “interventions” on bus shelter ads and billboards in the 1990s (see his Camel billboard intervention here). The interventions took Keith Haring’s subway drawings to the next level but were more subversive because passers-by likely didn’t know if they had been tagged or if the tag was part of the design. What began as graffiti soon became graphic design as Donnelly was hired by advertisers to design billboards that looked tagged. This simulated subversion reflects the complications of avant-garde tactics transplanted to a postmodern culture—how can one subvert authority when the intervention is invited?
KAWS makes what Warhol called “business art,” art that has a foot in both the art world and the business world. You may have seen his business side in album art for Kanye West or a balloon at the 2012 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. KAWS spent time in Japan working for such fashion brands as A Bathing Ape, and he opened his own store there called Original Fake in 2006. His trademark figure— a Mickey Mouse body whose head has been modified by a cartoonish skull and crossbones — developed from a 1999 toy edition for Japanese brand Bounty Hunter. The eyes are X-ed out, canceling their vision, and turning the characters into blank screens for our projections. Of course, that is what the original cartoons that the companions reference actually did … act as screens onto which we, the audience, project our fears and desires. KAWS’s work is canny in nodding toward that, but the references to death seem far too obvious in Night Lesson (2012, acrylic on canvas over panel), a shaped canvas of Mickey Mouse-style gloved hands whose arms have been sawed off above the wrist. Its blood drips are perfectly shaped as cartoony globs instead of a gory mess. The mix of cartoon and horror genres one-ups the skull-and-crossbones reference, but loses the power of ambivalence in the process.
Karl Wirsum was a central figure in the Hairy Who, a group named after their 1966 exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. Along with such artists as Roger Brown and Ed Pashke, the six artists in the show (the others were Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Jim Falconer, and Suellen Rocca) are now referred to as the Chicago Imagists, a kind of Midwest funk alternative to New York-based Pop Art.
A hidden gem of one gallery is the sketch for Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1968), one of Wirsum’s best-known paintings from the Hairy Who period. Hung at the end of a row of eight drawings, the ballpoint pen and colored pencil sketch recalls Dubuffet’s Corps de Dames series in its steamrolled flattening. Lines race through the forms, giving the legs thorns and outlining them with alligatoresque triangles. Despite the abstraction of the body, his legs end in ordinary men’s dress shoes. A figure labeled “Armpit Rubber” hides under his legs while a female “Decoy” awaits at the side. Above the figure, the text “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” identifies the subject as the noted R&B singer.
Wirsum always used bright color, distended shapes, and hard-edged forms, and his more recent work continues in that vein. Throw a Wait Line Proof of Purse Chase (2007) features a female figure in a Jessica Rabbit red dress with hospital mint green skin and a yellow background. The edges of the canvas are turquoise. Her red hair frames a flattened zombie face. Arms akimbo, one leg bent, she’s running as she drops a tiny blue purse that looks like a pouch. Is she running from a purse-snatcher, or leaving the scene of her own crime? Her waist is tiny, like a video game character or a Barbie doll, but agitated curving lines give her muscle man arms and legs. I think one bicep even has a nipple. The hands look mechanical and yet also like a lizard.
Not only are Wirsum’s images more twisted than ordinary Pop art, but the object choices are as well. The Newcomb exhibition features kites and masks, a puppet dog (Lolly Pup, 1972/73), and mannequins with the fabulous names Mary O’Net, Chris Teen, and Nurse Worse (all 1972). One mannequin has lightning bolt hair. The elegance of their silk and velvet dresses is comical next to the yellow wooden dowel legs wearing platform shoes painted with Wirsum’s trademark designs. The kites are made of rice paper and bamboo with ink line drawings that recall electrical currents and circuitry diagrams. Oh, to be a child toting a Karl Wirsum kite to the park!
After the neon colors in KAWS’s and Wirsum’s artworks, the black-and-white monochrome paintings by Tomoo Gokita come as visual relief. Gokita was born and lives in Tokyo, and his work plays more with references to art history and popular photography than the other artists in the show. A series of small portraits with obscured faces recalls yearbook photographs and John Baldessari’s technique of obscuring faces with dots. The hair is ’50s style, the eyes tiny gray and white dots. A traditional wedding portrait turns the bride, groom, and family into eerie statues with blurred faces (How to Marry a Millionaire, 2015). My favorite is Voodoo Pigeon, in which a pigeon is resting calmly atop a blocky Léger-style head.
The exhibition is staged to allow for face-offs between the artists. Gokita’s Merengue (2007) is paired with KAWS’s Chum (2009, painted fiberglass), both standing with hands on hips, both built out of bubbly forms. Merengue is a female figure wearing bikini underwear, her upper body obscured by a cloud of bubbles. Her left leg disappears into blackness, no foot visible. Paint is applied obviously, with brushstrokes cutting through like a serrated knife scraping butter. Chum is one of KAWS’s “companions,” this one having started out as a keychain design based on the Michelin tire man, but with the face of his first companion. The life-size Chum statue faces a 2012 Chum painting in the adjacent room—a shaped canvas of a running Chum painted in pale gray with neon yellow lines to distinguish the tires that make up his body. In the next room, the skull and crossbones on Wirsum’s mask call back to KAWS’s trademark X eyes.
An exhibition that tackled KAWS’s work in both the commercial realm and the art world would have been fascinating, but this exhibition sticks to the separation between toys and artworks. The toys get to exist on slides in the art history hall, but in the gallery they appear as paintings and statues, as capital-a Art. For cartoon figures to move from the world of popular culture to the gallery as the domain of high art would have been considered transgressive in the 1960s. That was the whole point of Pop. What do we make of that move now? The choice of medium and the abstraction of cartoon figures suggest that it is no longer subversive, or perhaps it is a mere feint at subversion, like Donnelly’s simulated interventions on billboards. Adding Wirsum and Gokita takes the exhibition to a different level, into revisionist history—the work that many historians are doing now to reject critic Clement Greenberg’s emphasis on abstraction as a defining element of modernist art and remind us that engagement with popular culture was just as central to the modernist project.
“A Shared Space: KAWS, Karl Wirsum, & Tomoo Gokita” is at Newcomb Art Museum until January 3, 2016.
Rebecca Lee Reynolds is an assistant professor in the department of fine arts at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches art history.