Dec 14, 2023

Meet the KAWS family

Get to know the cast of characters that form the KAWS family, as seen in his AGO exhibition

A group of sculptures featuring KAWS characters

KAWS. FAMILY, 2021. Bronze, paint, 219.1 × 207 × 95.6 cm. © KAWS

Making his Canadian museum debut, Brooklyn-based artist KAWS brings his family of figures to the AGO in KAWS: FAMILY. KAWS’s cast of characters—the family—appears throughout the exhibition in a range of different mediums and sizes, from paintings to life-sized sculptures. While his creations serve as an extension of the artist himself, they also act as a mirror for daily life in modern society. Though not human in form, the figures are expressive in their poses and gestures, igniting a sense of human emotion when looking at them – from companionship to loneliness, from melancholia to unbridled joy. The cast of characters that populate the KAWS universe speaks to the complex reality of life in our contemporary world.

KAWS once said, “I always wondered why [action] figures never had these kinds of expressive gestures— they were always proud superheroes standing tall or in other stiff poses. I wanted to create an emotional connection that could reflect our times and how I feel.”

Say hello to the different characters that make up the KAWS family.

COMPANION

Two KAWS COMPANION sculptures posing as guardian and child

Installation view, KAWS: FAMILY, Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: GOOD INTENTIONS, 2015. © KAWS. Photo Jonty Wilde

The first member of the KAWS family and arguably the most recognized is COMPANION. With its cartoon gloves, oversized shoes, and large-buttoned shorts, the character bears a resemblance to rubber-hose animation characters from early American cartoons. Similar but not quite, COMPANION’s head, instead, sports a soft skull and crossbones with X’s for eyes – iconography KAWS began employing in his early years as a graffiti artist. COMPANION originated as a toy in 1999 when KAWS collaborated with the Japanese company Bounty Hunter to create a figurine unlike any other on the market. It has now become KAWS’s most recurring character, showcased through many different mediums in this AGO exhibition. COMPANION is featured throughout its many iterations in the Signy Eaton Gallery, the larger-than-life sculptures and AR interventions in Galleria Italia and dressed as an astronaut in AI Green Gallery, all on Level 2.

CHUM

An acrylic painting showing KAWS' character CHUM running

KAWS. CHUM, 2002. Acrylic on canvas, 172.7 × 172.7 cm. © KAWS. Photo: Farzad Owrang

CHUM was first introduced in 1999 in an energized mid-run stance and later as a toy in 2002 standing proud with hands on hips. By definition, a chum is a close friend or pal. In its early iterations, as seen in the exhibition’s acrylic works on canvases, CHUM embodied good humour and optimism with its poses. In 2020, KAWS brought CHUM back in a decidedly un-celebratory mood. Downcast, shoulders slumped with arms hanging dejectedly by its side, visitors will encounter WHAT PARTY (2020) when leaving Signy Eaton Gallery to head into Galleria Italia. This giant red figure is reflective of the emotional discord of 2020, a year marred by the COVID-19 pandemic and socio-economic upheaval.

BFF

KAWS BFF Sculpture holding a small COMPANION sculpture

Installation view, KAWS: FAMILY, Art Gallery of Ontario. Work shown: TAKE, 2019. © KAWS. Photo Jonty Wilde

This fur-covered BFF character was introduced by KAWS in 2016. With bulging eyes atop its head, a round yellow nose and a fuzzy frame, BFF initially debuted as a bright blue sculpture but has since appeared in several colours and iterations. Spot a large BFF being carried by COMPANION in GONE (2020) and another (vinyl toy version) posing on its side in Galleria Italia in TIME OFF (2023).

ACCOMPLICE

Standing tall in the AI Green Gallery is ACCOMPLICE. The shades of pink between its head and body tell us that ACCOMPLICE is a figure in a bunny suit. With a head striking resemblance to COMPANION with its signature skull and crossbones and a name that suggests its motive, ACCOMPLICE is up for interpretation on who exactly they are – a friend, foe, or alter ego.

BENDY

An ad poster showing Keith Haring with KAWS' character CHUM around the body

KAWS. UNTITLED (HARING), 1997. Acrylic on existing advertising poster, 172.7 × 121.9 cm. © KAWS. Photo: Farzad Owrang

Right across ACCOMPLICE, you’ll spot BENDY, an amoeba-like character, in a poster that shows it spiralled around American artist Keith Haring, who is pictured making his own intervention in a New York City subway station. Influenced by Haring’s works and the artistic principle of making art accessible to everybody, KAWS made his own public advertisement interventions in the late 1990s. KAWS took public posters from their vitrines and brought them back to his studio to paint. Seamlessly adding his artwork to it, with almost invisible brushstroke lines, he then placed them back in their cases for public consumption.

KAWS: FAMILY is on view on Level 2 of the AGO in Signy Eaton Gallery (gallery 224), Galleria Italia (gallery 223) and Al Green Gallery (gallery 252) from September 27, 2023 to August 5, 2024.   

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