I try to avoid meta-reviews when they’re especially scathing (Rashayla Marie Brown’s review of Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” is a notable exception) but I was intrigued by this one by Hrag Vartanian. For Hyperallergic, he reviewed Kaws’ retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum curated by Eugenie Tsai. Vartanian starts throwing critical punches from the get-go (the title, Kaws Is Terrible, But Thankfully Forgettable, sets the scene):
We live in an age of cons driven by people who think they’re smarter than the rest of us, or in on a joke the rest of us fail to see. Con men (and they’re most often men) are prevalent in the fields of modern and contemporary art. They have their coteries of edgelords, artists, curators, and associated writers and academics who fancy themselves ahead of the crowd, along with collectors, dealers, auctioneers, and other purveyors of luxury goods who join them in celebrating their acquisition of power, or the symbols of it anyway.
Few genres of contemporary art reveal the machinations of this tiresome ouroboros of popular shock to luxury shlock as clearly as graffiti and street art. And no one encompasses that soulless supersizing of pop culture as clearly as Kaws […]
He pours scorn on the gentrification of street art and graffiti, laying a large part of the blame on artists like Kaws, whom he noted for being “apolitical”, lending his work to “the super wealthy who prefer to be comforted and appeased rather than being criticized.”
The art on display in KAWS: WHAT PARTY, is wretchedly meh. The references are facile, and aesthetically the works are akin to Instagram filters or Photoshop tricks. He uses shiny materials, scale, and quantity to make his obtuse points. Not to mention, he offers merchandise in every color and size and price point — let’s call him the Swatch watch of art.
I recommend you read it for the continuous fire spitting from Vartanian which appears to be aimed mainly at contemporary art’s shallow emptiness rather than Kaws alone. Personally, I can take or leave Kaws. His work uses pop culture references I hold dear to my heart (The Simpsons, for example) but his style isn’t for me. Maybe in 2008 when I was heavily into skateboard art (as much as someone can be without every stepping foot on one but I did love Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 back in the day!) I do agree with Vartanian’s overarching views on street art and its commodification. Alas, it is nothing new and artists lament it every decade it occurs. If anything, the time between artistic revolution and gentrification has shortened so much that some artists appropriate before we can blink an eye. But hey, they’re making their millions of NFTs while we sit and bash on our keyboards, right?