Brian Donnelly – better known in the art world as KAWS – has a new exhibition entitled KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness, showing over 100 artworks at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Sneaker Freaker caught up with the acclaimed artist to talk about his Tokyo connections, his love of toys and, of course, his KAWS sneakers.
The first question we gotta ask… are those the one-off Swooshless Jordan 1 Lows that you're wearing?
Yeah. They’re just nice and simple. They don’t have a Swoosh, just these little ‘XX’ marks on them. I like my sneakers, but I’m not the guy who’s going to tell you everything about it.
The Melbourne exhibition features some great Kimpsons artwork and the Chum pieces, which is the character on your DC sneaker colab from the early 2000s.
That was back in 2002. That one came about just because I’m friends with Damon Way (DC founder). Actually, that’s not even the first sneaker collaboration I did if you think about it. I did some UNDERCOVER kid’s shoes back in 1999.
We’ve only seen bashed up pairs on Japanese auction sites. Seems kids were actually wearing them rather than flipping them. What is it about Japan that intrigues you?
I started going to Japan back in about 1997. The first trip was with Futura and Stash. I met the guys at Hectic and, through them, I met Nigo on the second trip in 1998. We just kept in touch. I did this show up at Parco [Gallery] in 2001. I just appreciate the sensibility of Japanese people. You know, it’s been a very incestuous thing meeting Nigo, then Nigo bringing Katayama [Wonderwall interior design] to my studio to buy paintings. That’s how I asked him to do OriginalFake with me.
There was an element of ‘searching’ when we all went to Japan in the 90s. The shopping was always amazing because there’d be so much stuff there that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Now I just feel everything’s so globalised. You can see it on your phone the moment it comes out, no matter where in the world you are.
Do you think that’s a bad thing?
I do. I mean, it just depends on where you’re at. I’m turning 45 this year. I’m sure it means different things to young people who are in school and discovering what’s out there for the first time.
Speaking of phones, you’ve been quite prolific on Instagram. Has the Internet changed how you approach your work?
I think it gives an artist a lot of independence. I started my website in 2002 and sold my toys starting with Accomplice and Chum. And from that point on I noticed that that’s the best way to have the direct contact to the end consumer. Why settle for anything else?
It gives you freedom as an artist.
It does. And you also don’t need the acceptance of a bricks-and-mortar shop. If you’re making work that people want, and you have a website, that’s all you need. If you have Instagram, you have access to information that you have never had before. You know, back in the 90s when I was coming up, we would see a little blurb in a magazine about something and that was the only way we found out about cool stuff. But now, I think everybody prefers to take matters into their own hands.
How did your relationship with Nike develop?
My first Nike shoe was in 2007. You know, I’ve been fortunate that I organically get to meet a lot of cool people in the business. Mark Parker (Nike CEO) was collecting my work for a while before that. There’s actually an Air Force 1 that’s not in this show. I had them in the crate and I could have probably put those on display instead of the Air Max.
With the fashion world combining the likes of Off-White and Futura, Louis Vuitton and Takashi Murakami, is everything going full circle with collaborations?
I don’t think it ever went away. It’s definitely grown… I felt like back then if you did something, it was very surprising. But now, I think collaborations are pretty standard. It’s really hard to surprise people – you have to bring either a totally new scale or form to the table.
How do you feel seeing this amazing exhibition of your work?
It’s great. You know, I never get to see all my work displayed like this. It’s good to see things I haven’t seen in a decade and just re-evaluate them all over again. When you’re walking around the room, you can see how things hold up against each other. It’s a lot of information to process, and it definitely gets me thinking about the things I like to make.
KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness is open at the National Gallery of Victoria. The exhibition runs from September 20 to April 13.
Header: Brian Donnelly aka KAWS inside KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness at NGV International, Melbourne 20 September 2019 – 13 April 2020. Photo © Eugene Hyland