KAWS at PAFA – Pop culture meets the Academy in a must-see mashup

(Veronica calls the KAWS show an eye-opener — a surprising installation of new art in the midst of the Academy’s stately old paintings and statuary. –the artblog editors)

If you haven’t seen the KAWS show at PAFA, then you must. Now, some people who have seen this exhibit weren’t all too thrilled for it to be at the prestigious Academy. But, I’ll get to that later.

MTV Video Music Award logo. Image courtesy of MTV & Craig Cutler.
MTV Video Music Award logo. Image courtesy of MTV & Craig Cutler.

KAWS (or Brian Donnelly, his given name) was born in Jersey City, NJ, and received his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York. Recently, he has been in the spotlight for a number of reasons. One, he reinvented the MTV Video Music award (the Moonman statuette) and additionally created a 60-foot inflatable KAWS Moonman for the stage at the awards ceremony last August. Furthermore, last October, at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, he installed one of his COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) sculptures, a temporary project sponsored by PAFA.

Donnelly with one of his COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) scultpures. Photo courtesy of Colin Kerrigan.
Donnelly with one of his COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) scultpures in 30th Street Station. Photo courtesy of Colin Kerrigan.

Now, he has taken on the galleries at PAFA and installed over 60 of his sculptures and paintings alongside old master works in PAFA’s Historic Landmark Building, located at 118 North Broad Street. And the harmonious relationship between KAWS’ works and PAFA’s permanent collection is breathtaking. The playfulness of the contemporary KAWS figures in contrast with the dark and somewhat ominous facade and interiors of the galleries is a perfect match of old and new art together. And this is a problem for some people.

What others have said

“This show is so improbable and bizarre that words can’t fully convey the strangeness of the experience; its unabashed banality must be seen,” says Edward Sozanski, Contributing Art Critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. This show is far from unoriginal and what’s so ‘improbable’ about it? It is not only probable but possible.  It’s done. The figures are in place. KAWS’s unique style of creating these little vinyl toys, sized up to bigger-than-human proportions is something that should be looked at further.

COMPANIONS in front of West's 1817 painting Death on the Pale Horse.
COMPANIONS in front of Benjamin West’s 1817 painting, Death on the Pale Horse.

The blank stares of the COMPANION figures (XX’s for eyes,no facial features at all) give you a sense of being watched while you look at them, or gaze at the massive paintings behind them.  The installation in front of Benjamin West’s 1817 painting “Death on the Pale Horse” is a great example. Sozanski just brushes the whole exhibition off as boring, unoriginal and intruding on the PAFA master works. I disagree, but go see for yourself.

One of those shows you just have to see in person

Trying to explain this show to you is like trying to explain the Grand Canyon to someone who’s never been there: impossible. Sure, you could look at photos of it and hear stories, but nothing beats (whether you love it or hate it) seeing the exhibition in person. The curating is great: the match-up of deadpan unheroic KAWS works with hyper-Romantic and heroic early American works is perfect. It’s a commentary on the past and the present.

You will know where to find this exhibit when you get to Broad and Cherry Streets. Just look for the aluminum figures BORN TO BEND hugging the front façade of PAFA. This site specific sculpture, embracing and crating a dialogue between old and new is exactly what this show is about.

The art scene is constantly in flux. I remember when I read the historical article in the 1923  Philadelphia Inquirer of the Barnes’ collection exhibit at PAFA. The review said the art was scandalous; the unnamed author called the art ‘savage’ and ‘hedonistic’. Skipping to almost 90 years later, of course, everyone knows the Barnes collection is priceless; full of masterpieces and everyone goes there to see the great works.

Time will tell all about whether KAWS’s works are masterpieces.  But a stroll through this show will make you wonder about the question of who defines great art, and how sometimes people in the moment get it wrong because their minds are not open to what they are seeing.

KAWS @ PAFA is on view from now until January 5th. For more information, visit PAFA’s website.