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    Description

    KAWS (American, b. 1974)
    Companion-Bus Stop, 2001
    Acrylic on Arches paper
    70-1/4 x 48-1/4 inches (178.4 x 122.6 cm)
    Signed lower right: Kaws..01

    KawsOne hardcover book, published in 2001, accompanies this lot.
    Follow the Bus Stop:
    @companionbusstop
    #followthedisruption

    Follow the Bus Stop as it travels:
    New York, June 17-21 | Reception June 20
    Hong Kong, June 25-26 | By appointment
    Dallas, July 8-12 | Reception July 9
    ComplexCon Chicago, July 20-21
    Chicago Auction, July 22

    Kaws: Companion-Bus Stop


    Illicit interventions against the brain-numbing banality of commercialized public space, Kaws' early forays into altered bus shelter adverts constitute a seminal body of work for the artist and the evolution of a new urban discourse now called street art. To understand the significance of this gesture, subversive as it was whimsical, it is important to situate it within the framework of Kaws' oeuvre as well as the ideological and aesthetic differences between graffiti, from which Kaws got his name, and the expansive field of street art in which he was, however briefly, a leading figure on the New York scene. A significant historical work, this bus stop painting by Kaws from the provenance of an early supporter of the artist, offers not simply a significant insight into the development of Kaws' signature style but tells the story of the artist's role in shifting our relationship to the contemporary cityscape of corporate influence and media spectacle.


    Born in 1974 and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey just across the Hudson River from New York City where he would in time make his indelible mark on popular culture with his bus shelter series, Brian Donnelly would adopt the name Kaws as his graffiti moniker as a young man, and would soon venture to the city he dreamed about as a distant but proximate vision, first to get his BFA at the School of Visual Arts fabled illustration department and soon-after working as an animator for Jumbo Pictures on such popular cartoons as Daria and Doug, and101 Dalmatians. While it is tempting to regard his early work on street ads- including not only bus stops but also billboards and phone booths- as the foundation of his now celebrated iconography and career, this work is not simply a beginning but also a culmination of all the influences, skills, life experience and emergent emotional sensibilities. The widespread resonance of this inherently personal work within the broader public is embodied in the birth at this time of his classic Companion figure seen on this hijacked bus shelter ad- a distillation of the dreams and anxieties of the artist towards the city of his ambitions, now something of a cross-cultural signifier for the desire and dread, alienation and humanism, optimism and despair by which most of us navigate this increasingly complex and uncertain world.


    While graffiti taught Kaws the rules of trespass, the questioning of authority, the bonds of creative community and the aesthetic parameters by which an individual comes to confront and conquer public space, he too quickly mastered the skills of representation, communication and visual seduction he learned at SVA and his tenure in commercial art. Each has become a kind of second language for Kaws and together they form a new mode of address by which he's been able to sugarcoat the trauma of being and make the idiosyncratic universal. His Companion, recognized here in this early artifact of visual vandalism where, using a key that workers who change the marketing displays, he removed the ad, repainted it in the studio and then returned it to its point of origin, is at once the quintessential distillate and mongrel hybrid of the anti-social and highly social artistic practices that forged his vision. Arriving as it does in the early Nineties to the young Brian Donnelly, it marks a pivotal point for artist creatively as well as for the emergence of a new generation of street artists who began to merge the radical energy of graffiti with their own studio practices, setting forth a new movement predicated on the antagonisms of the former and the accessibility of the latter.


    The appropriation of public space, the wresting of it from the coercive and cooptive grasp of corporate consumer culture by artists, is a strategy similarly shared by graffiti, street art and activism. Dating back to the golden age of NY graffiti, when artists- inspired by the masterworks on the trains- began to take to the streets with the early strains of what we now call street art, advertising became a natural vernacular for the content and context of personal expression. At this time radical ideas and sensibilities could float like memes across the city in mimetic subversion of ad-speak as artists, from John Fekner's modified billboards to Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer wheatpasted posters, launched their own interrogations of the consumerist paradigm. Most celebrated of these interventions at this time were the subway drawings of Keith Haring, done quickly, simply and with an epically prolific scope on the black paper put up over vacant ad spaces in subway stations. Profoundly influential on Kaws for its direct, easily accessible and completely democratic address to everyday people outside the rarified discourse of the art world, Haring's transgression of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's selling of our visual space would find clear echo in Kaws' bus stops as well as a number of contemporary artists still, including artivist Jordan Seiler, whose Public Ad Campaign issues limited edition keys allowing artists around the world to access these ad spaces, and the monthly curatorial project Art in Ad Spaces that commissions artists to replace the ads in phone booths with their own work.


    For many there is an unbridgeable chasm between graffiti and street art: a prevailing sense that graffiti is not art but merely vandalism, that street art is done by white kids with art school educations while graffiti is somehow the sole province of disadvantaged artists of color, or that somehow street art chronologically replaces graffiti. All these presumptions are not only wrong; they are endemic to a long history of social misrepresentation and bias that disserve both art forms. Graffiti is of course as old as humans have had the basic impulse for mark making and an alphabet to use a written language, but from its earliest days in New York City it extended across (and brought together) differences of race and class. Neither has it gone away by any means, but rather, much like its Hip Hop counterpart of Rap, spread across the world as a global language of youth culture.


    Though we can say that graffiti has long been- at since the emergence of wild style in the Seventies- a hermetic language intended to be read by fellow writers and aficionados and otherwise illegible to most as a type of indecipherable urban noise, and that street art has generally been more pictographic and broadly comprehensible, there are endless exceptions to such a distinction and even at that far more similarities than differences between the two. Perhaps, to better understand the commonality between these divergent expressions as they converged in the young Donnelly, we can acknowledge that neither constitutes a style so much as an act, one that might be legally viewed as property damage but is culturally central as a mode of resistance. Kaws is a link, but one of many at that, schooled no doubt by many writers along the way, helped in his assault on billboards by Ron English, a grand-daddy of street art, given tips on the practice and the key itself from Espo and Twist, both pioneers on the hybrid nature of street art and graffiti widely known in the art world today as Steve Powers and Barry McGee. To this day you can still spot Kaws graffiti in his native Jersey City, not so very hard to do as he got up high, and he is now one of the foremost patrons of graffiti art. His Companion has left the bus stop, first through the phenomenal success of his Companion figure with Japan's Bounty Hunter in 1999 and subsequently through myriad incarnations in galleries, museums and monumental public sculpture, but before it was iconic it was what this kind of art is supposed to be: unexpected.


    Truly an artist of his post-modern age, Kaws' art is a seamless decoction of pop culture and pictorial representation culled from myriad sources into a novelty as familiar as it is uncanny. His Companion is instantly recognizable today in part because it is constituted of the nearly universal visual tropes coined like a trademark currency in multinational globalism. The elements of popular visual culture in a blender, it is a singular icon built of pluralist iconography. Founded on what is common and shared, it resonates as a kind of everyman capable of reflecting each viewer in the surface of mass media, a surrogate of self where the emotional spectrum from angst to loneliness finds empathic identification across the body politic. Premised on the foundational pop meme, Mickey Mouse, so pervasive a figure that Disney tried suing the multitude of artists who began to use him in their work only for the courts to rule that he was indeed so famous he transcended copyright as a public figure, the most apparent modification Kaws has added is changing the signature mouse ears with a skull and bones motif.


    As universal as Mickey, the skull and bones is a far more fraught signifier, stretching back through time as the visage of death and the reminder of our own mortality. As such it shifts the anthropomorphic joy of Mickey into a kind of foreboding pathos. It resonates with Hamlet lifting up the skull and uttering "Alas Poor Yorick, I knew him well," the history of Memento Mori paintings from the Middle Ages through the Victorian Era in which the discretely hidden evocation of a skull in a painting would remind the viewer that they too were destined for the grave, and most obviously the iconic Jolly Roger flag that once flew on pirate ships in the 18th Century and still ceaselessly multiplies on motorcycle jackets to tattoos as a symbol of renegade rebellion. If Mickey is saccharine, the skull and bones is a danger symbol of poison, something referenced by Kaws' forbearers Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in a collaborative painting where it appears as a subtle wink to the once popular New York heroin brand aptly called Poison.

    Context is everything, and for Kaws it is both crucial and beside the point. His work can be fine art, public art, brilliant marketing or a criminal offense, and his fluidity in mastering all these domains is a testament to a rare kind of creative flexibility, comprehensive vision and design acumen. Likely Brian Donnelly doesn't take the bus much these days, but like all of us he has, and no doubt wondered why to sit there one must be surrounded by the subtle coercion of advertisers rather than the free expressions of artists. And the bus stop, this station where the pedestrian meets the vehicular, that interminable interstice of life we bide as we do all our commutes and errands, is like the subway to graffiti, far more deliberate than incidental. The bus stop, a bit of quotidian sidewalk furniture as common, utilitarian and banal as the fire hydrant or mailbox, is a nowhere that is everywhere, a kind of nothingness that can be so many things.


    A place of waiting, of anxiety and anticipation, it's an existential cul-de-sac, an end to itself without destination. It's where you might catch a bus such as Jamie Reid, a pioneer of Punk graphics most famous for his work with The Sex Pistols, designated as going "Nowhere." Or maybe it's where we find "Further," Ken Kesey's bus that rode the vestiges of Beat culture into the psychedelic Sixties. It's the misadventure of the rural Kansas diner where bus riders wait out the delay of a snowstorm in Bus Stop, where Marilyn Monroe opined- "if you don't have a direction you just keep going around in circles." It's the accidental museum of the incidental, or as Banksy put it: "Bus stops are far more interesting and useful places to have art than museums." And yes, dear friends, it is not simply another ad spot in the growing privatization of public space; it is also a canvas.

    -Carlo McCormick


    Condition Report*: Condition report available upon request.
    *Heritage Auctions strives to provide as much information as possible but encourages in-person inspection by bidders. Statements regarding the condition of objects are only for general guidance and should not be relied upon as complete statements of fact, and do not constitute a representation, warranty or assumption of liability by Heritage. Some condition issues may not be noted in the condition report but are apparent in the provided photos which are considered part of the condition report. Please note that we do not de-frame lots estimated at $1,000 or less and may not be able to provide additional details for lots valued under $500. All lots are sold "AS IS" under the Terms & Conditions of Auction.

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    July, 2019
    22nd-23rd Monday-Tuesday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 21
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