New Orleans

A Shared Space: KAWS, Karl Wirsum, and Tomoo Gokita at Newcomb Art Museum

The history of the artist-as-collector is as long as the history of art itself. From Rembrandt to Damien Hirst, artists have amassed collections in order to satisfy a range of interests and obsessions. A Shared Space: KAWS, Karl Wirsum, and Tomoo Gokita, at Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum, consists of artworks culled from the Brooklyn-based artist, designer, animator, and commercial guru KAWS’s private collection, allowing the viewer a rare insight into the artist’s preferences as both a producer and consumer of works of art. Unlike more recent attempts to frame the personal collecting habits of an artist as a manic embodiment of commodity fetishism in the era of high capitalism, this exhibition asks viewers to reflect upon the correspondences between artist and acquisition and the complicated relationship that contemporary art exposes between taste, influence, and popular culture.

KAWS. Flight Time. 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 84 x 72 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and the Newcomb Art Museum.

KAWS. Flight Time, 2015; acrylic on canvas; 84 x 72 in. Courtesy of the Artist and the Newcomb Art Museum.

Even across the diverse styles and interests of these three artists, linkages between content and craft are revealed. Weaving through the galleries, the succession of images feels like a series of slaps to the face as colors are taken to their saturation points and figures are monumentalized in scale and proportion. The dialogues composed by the careful placement of works provide the most powerful moments in the exhibition. KAWS’ deep black Michelin-like figure CHUM (2009) stands determinedly next to graphic paintings by Gokita, offering his protection to the naked and faceless vulnerables posed in the images, while ACCOMPLICE (2010)—a matte black toy bunny sculpture with large Xs covering his eyes—stands hunched in defeat across the room, out of sync with the bright canvases that surround him. Using the well-worn ethics of Pop Art to tease out the dark structures of commodity forms, KAWS’s sculptures allow these humorously irreverent figures to fester in their slick, expensive aura of pomposity and compelling iconicity.

Installation Shot of COMPANION (PASSING THROUGH) by KAWS in the Newcomb Sculpture Garden at Tulane University. 16 feet high. Image courtesy of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University, New Orleans, LA.

A Shared Space: KAWS, Karl Wirsum, and Tomoo Gokita, 2015; installation view, Newcomb Art Museum. Courtesy of the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University, New Orleans.

Karl Wirsum’s oeuvre provides the strongest art-historical foundations for KAWS. An early member of the Chicago-based 1960s collective the Hairy Who (which later morphed into the Chicago Imagist Group), Wirsum’s works speak widely to the canon of modern artists who privilege experimentation and transgression over cohesive style, and who used popular culture as if the boundaries between high and low had never existed. Works such as Yodel Me Back to Orville Overhaul (1998) extends the vocabulary that Wirsum began in the 1970s, which combined motifs from graphic illustration and comics with hard-edged geometric patterns and designs that spoke to the flat horizontality of Color Field Painting as well as the intricate patterns and rhythms of Latin American and Oceanic folk art. Organic shapes are blasted apart by bright, unnatural tones of hot pink and acid green, while forms that reveal Wirsum’s education in the vocabulary of modern abstraction are disengaged from the history of oil painting through the smooth, manufactured qualities of the painted surface. Like KAWS, Wirsum brings a certain elegance and sophistication to bear on the eclectic references that appear in each picture by keeping his mockery of the art establishment as powerful and present as his acknowledgement of the past.

Karl Wirsum. Yodel Me Back To Orville Overhaul. 1998. Acrylic on canvas. 57.5 x 44.5 inches. Image courtesy of KAWS and the Newcomb Art Museum.

Karl Wirsum. Yodel Me Back to Orville Overhaul, 1998; acrylic on canvas; 57.5 x 44.5 in. Courtesy of KAWS and the Newcomb Art Museum.

However, it is the selection of nine portraits by the Japanese artist and educator Tomoo Gokita that lends this exhibition the most weight. While stark tonalities reveal Gokita’s investment in graphic illustration and portrait photography, the thick and expressive gestures that contour Gokita’s figures reveal the expressive pleasure of painting, tying him less to Pop and more to the Neo-Expressionist painters of the 1980s and ’90s (Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter come to mind). However, Gokita’s works fail to seize the historical and political scope of this history; in fact, it seems determinedly left out. The destruction brought to a work like Speechless (2013)—the scraped and gouged surfaces punctured by the blanked-out faces of unidentifiable persons—is disturbed more by the buffed gradations and soft, whimsical applications of paint than the frustrated violence brought to bear on the pictures. Instead of reaffirming the playful and potent history of popular culture that embeds itself within contemporary art, Gokita’s works point to the empty, meaningless forms of derivativeness that haunt KAWS’s practice. Perhaps in collecting Gokita, KAWS is engaging in a tautological form of critical engagement?

Tomoo Gokita. Speechless. 2013. Acrylic gouache on canvas. 28 x 12. 5 x 14 inches. Image courtesy of KAWS and the Newcomb Art Museum.

Tomoo Gokita. Speechless, 2013; acrylic gouache on canvas; 28 x 12. 5 x 14 in. Courtesy of KAWS and the Newcomb Art Museum.

While the polished surfaces and slick graphic style of KAWS’s own work find their match in Karl Wirsum’s electrifying geometric forms and Tomoo Gokita’s bold black-and-white bodies, it is the extraordinary level of refinement and craft explored within different materials and processes that confirms KAWS’s role as a 21st-century connoisseur of the highest order.

A Shared Space: KAWS, Karl Wirsum, and Tomoo Gokita is on view at the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University in New Orleans through January 3, 2016.