Friday 22 November 2019

Review: KAWS, Melbourne, Australia

I was hosted to this exhibition by the National Gallery of Victoria.

Last weekend I had a look through the NGV's current big exhibition, KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness.

There's no avoiding it as you step within the gallery, as a huge new commissioned work by the artist (see image, right) stands in the middle of the central courtyard.

It's titled Gone, and depicts a figure with crossed-out eyes and a skull-and-crossbones head carrying a deceased BFF, one of the artist's repeated figures.

BFF also has crossed-out eyes, and a furry version of the skull-and-crossbones.

Now get this: Xs on the eyes in cartooning has always meant death. Characters depicted this way are dead. If they are mobile, they are the walking dead. The skull-and-crossbones motif seems to underline this.

So why does no-one mention it? On the NGV's website the commentary says "Through his works KAWS celebrates generosity, support for others and the deep need we have for companionship." And nowhere on the captioning in the exhibition does it mention death.

But they seem dead. They might be companions, but dead ones, at least emotionally if not physically. Narrelle and I walked around the exhibition, feeling that KAWS was really trying to say something nihilistic, pointing out the meaninglessness of existence... because we all end up dead.

The figures in this exhibition are colourful, bright, intriguing and subversive of pop culture... but at the same time, as Holly said to Lister in Red Dwarf: "He's dead, Dave. Everybody is dead. Everybody is dead, Dave."

OK, now I've got that out of my system, what is the exhibition like if we acknowledge its macabre overtones?

Interesting stuff, especially the work from the early days when KAWS would hijack advertising posters and paint his cartoonish death masks over them. This is where the "We're all gonna die" visual cue really resonates, juxtaposed with the artificial vibrancy of the fit, alert figures found in ads.

Further on, we see KAWS' trademark adoption and reinvention of popular cartoon characters, such as Snoopy and The Simpsons - with his version seen here swapping heads because, I guess, they're dead.

There's a room of incredibly vibrant abstract paintings too, their vividness attained by applying multiple coats of paint. And at the end is a room full of big figures - classic KAWS creations, cartoon giants with their eyes crossed out, some with exposed inner organs.

To be honest, this later part of the exhibition didn't move me as much as the earlier work which interacted with real-world posters.

I can see the figures might hint at our need for companionship seeing we're all going to die, and have something to say about isolation and loneliness. But mostly I was spooked by those dead, dead eyes.

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness continues to 13 April 2020, at NGV International, 180 St Kilda Road, Melbourne, Australia. Tickets $20 for adults, $17 concession. Make bookings here.

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