By Ciara LaVelle
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Once you get beyond the sugar rush of Kaws's playful paintings at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, what stays with you is the painstaking manner in which they were made.
"Saturated" marks the first solo show since 2002 for the graffiti rat turned artist and designer. It features nearly a dozen boldly colored acrylic-on-canvas works depicting Kaws's wacky interpretations of the SpongeBob SquarePants and Smurfs cartoons. The works are isolated in a rear room on the second floor of the gallery.
KawsBob 1 is a large acrylic-on-canvas painting depicting the familiar yellow sponge dork holding a finger under his nose as he is about to sneeze.
Kaws's version of the pockmarked character includes bony protuberances on either side of his head and crossed-out eyes, both typical of the artist's work. Kaws has painted the wall behind the piece in expanding green and red concentric circles, suggesting a target — or that his squishy protagonist is about to blow his lid.
In many of the paintings, the bucktoothed Bob appears in extreme closeup. Take for instance the hand-towel-size work titled Deadlines. In it, the freckled creature features multiple sets of bulging peepers that make him look like Sarah Palin frozen in the television camera lights.
By contrast, the three Smurf paintings evoke more of a narrative. They are equally meticulously executed, seeming almost machine-made rather than created by the artist's hands.
In Kurfs (Cloud), a cross-eyed Smurf stands outside his mushroom abode, holding a box from which sooty, turdlike puffs flow, contaminating the air.
Kurf (Papa) shows the cantankerous elder statesman of the blue-skinned tribe reading the riot act to his clan.
During the Nineties, the New York-based artist, whose real name is Brian Donnelly, began subverting advertisements on billboards, bus shelters, and phone booths, adding his signature crossed eyes and crossed bones to the features of models who appeared in the ads. He later began producing limited-edition vinyl toys that became wildly popular; they depicted re-toolings of iconic figures such as Star Wars Stormtroopers and the Michelin Man.
Kaws's imagery has appeared everywhere from Pez dispensers and wallets to sneakers and T-shirts, turning him into somewhat of a global one-man brand. His work is easily recognizable, exuding a universal, magnetic appeal. He has received the imprimatur of taste mavens such as Pharrell Williams, who curated this exhibit, and has become co-opted by the mainstream gallery world, which banks on Kaws's street cred.
Purists might tag Kaws a sell-out, but he remains true to his origins while minting big bucks. His following in the fashion and music industries is huge. His entire show was sold out before opening night, commanding prices in the $10,000 to $35,000 range. When New Times recently visited Perrotin's, a gallery assistant said she was still receiving e-mails and phone calls from collectors eager to purchase Kaws's eye-popping work.
Some might wonder if the hype is a swindle. After viewing the repeated SpongeBob and Smurf imagery, they might fail to savor a sense of originality or irony in Kaws's work. But others would counter that Kaws is a legit pop phenom worthy of Roy Lichtenstein's mantle or that he's a talented oracle able to assimilate and regurgitate mass culture with a vision uniquely his own.
Near the second-floor landing is another artist's work. Conrad Shawcross bathes viewers in a dizzying wash of light with Slow Arc Inside a Cube II. The kinetic Rube Goldberg-like contraption consists of a robotic arm with a light attached that's trapped inside a wire mesh chicken coop.
As the spectator walks around it, the gizmo spins like a rotisserie chicken, casting chainlink-like shadows on the floor, ceilings, and walls of the room. The work is part of "Axiom," the British sculptor's first solo show at Perrotin.
Downstairs, the artist has arranged several powder-coated aluminum, nylon, and stainless-steel bolt pieces reminiscent of a geometric cube expanding outward into space. Lattice Cube 1 is a tightly compacted grouping of right angles arranged into tetrahedrons. In Lattice Cube 4, the structure spreads outward, not unlike a science model illustrating the three-dimensional properties of space.
On the walls nearby, Shawcross's three Perimeter Study sculptures, made of painted resin, are mysterious small constructions resonating with a random fractal vibe. Tetra Helix Tower, soaring to the rafters at the gallery entrance, looks like a DNA strand. Shawcross effortlessly melds principles from science and mathematics, creating provocative, elegant hybrids that speak as much of an interest in the physics of space as in the abstract representation of it.
Although Kaws might have been the lightning rod for publicity during Perrotin's recent opening, it is Daniel Arsham's "The Undoing" that steals all the thunder here. His exhibit, behind a faux entrance, is wisely closed off from the noise. It makes you feel like you're crossing the threshold into an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole where elements of architecture and nature collide in a fractured utopian landscape.
Inside the enclosed space, Arsham's immaculate gouache-on-Mylar drawings depict lush tropical settings where marble slabs, rods, and beams erupt from the earth and hurl themselves toward the horizon beyond the trees.
The drawings vibrate with an eerie twilight glow that adds a chimerical quality to the scenes and suggests with subtle aplomb the collapse of civilization. In Orange, an unseen force appears to juggle large slabs of cement in the air. A thicket of palm trees sways in the background while one of the beams pierces the ground below. An incandescent spit of tangerine light floats in the distance, cloaking the jungle in a surreal haze.