KAWS, “Dirt Discoteque,” (2011) at Honor Fraser (all images by the author)

LOS ANGELES – The inside of Honor Fraser, the Los Angeles gallery now showing artist and designer KAWS’s new solo exhibition Hold the Line, must feel far away from the New York City bus stops and phone booths of the late 1990s.

It was at those bus stops that KAWS – aka Brian Donnelly – made a name for himself heisting advertisement posters and replacing them with his own take on product marketing and brand presentation. Most recognizable became the caricatured X-eyed faces that he drew onto DKNY, Bebe or Elle magazine ads (among many others). Some fifteen years later, the X-eyed figures have been inscribed on thousands of figures and translated into a host of different media, including globally distributed toys that can be found in such esteemed locales as Kanye’s (fly ass) crib.

With the popularity of figures like Shepard Fairey, whose work is now as boring as the ideas behind them are thin, it is easy to see how a “street artist turned commercial cash cow” narrative is one that dominates large swaths of the street art discourse, often diverting attention away from the work itself.

KAWS, who in some ways fits into this narrative, provides at the same time an easy way out of it. This is because his work is neither boring nor thin. Standing before “Silent City” (2011), an engrossing, monumental canvas featured prominently in the Honor Fraser display, it is hard to dislike KAWS as a fine artist just because he also makes toys. It is a rich work that, whether intentionally or not, comes to represent a determined artist sifting through the debris of a broken scene.

KAWS, “Silent City” (2011) at Honor Fraser

Visually, “Silent City” is remarkable for the way it presents one cohesive picture using a chaotic frenzy of shattered form and fractured action. The broken pieces of matter that make up this twenty-four foot long tryptic move apart in space enough for the viewer to witness an anxious point of tension where two cartoon hands are about to snap a personified (or rather cartoonified) piece into more shards. A terrified character of the Sponge Bob variety sits cut off at the back of the canvas’s deep spatial field. Those cartoon hands are out for blood, their frightening effect staid only by the fact that they are cartoons rendered in a vibrant, electric palette. The painting conveys such a swell of energy, a stunning roar of chaos frozen at a peak of pressure and anticipation that can nonetheless never escape being funny because, after all, its a cartoon. “Silent City” captures and perpetuates this simultaneous moment of anxiety and comic relief; it never releases the tension and it doesn’t allow you to laugh.

KAWS, “Untitled,” (2011) at Honor Fraser

None of the other works in Hold the Line quite live up to “Silent City.” The fetishization of the X-eyed face continues in an installation of well over thirty round canvases all of the same size wrapped around one of the gallery rooms. The disembodied, hyper-focused cartoon monster is again the subject, always in a state of over exertion and often sexualized with their ambiguously anthropomorphic forms receiving stimulation from unknown sources. The anxiety and humor of “Silent City” is present in them all, but the small scale and repeated witticism eventually lessens the effect.

On the whole it is refreshing to see an artist of KAWS’ background make no deal-breaking concessions to the gallery environment. Even with the polished, factory-made quality of the paintings and sculpture in Hold the Line, there is a lot in the work to suggest that KAWS pours himself into his paintings and that they are made first and foremost for himself. Not something you can say about all of the street art stars.

KAWS’s Hold the Line exhibition at Honor Fraser Gallery (2622 S. La Cienega Blvd., Culver City, Los Angeles County) continues until October 22.

Benjamin A. Snyder is a freelance writer based in San Diego, California.