Some things become clearer in the dark.
That’s the premise of “Blackout,” the first major London exhibition by Brian Donnelly, the Brooklyn-based artist also known as KAWS, which opens this week.
“For me this feels like a very new direction, a new body of work, and that gets me excited,” says Mr. Donnelly, 44, speaking at the Skarstedt Gallery earlier this week. The 10 paintings that form the larger part of the exhibition are far more abstract than the cartoonish figures that made Mr. Donnelly famous. It’s a bold departure for an artist whose paintings and sculptures of those figures have never been more valuable on the art market.
Mr. Donnelly, once a teenage graffiti artist in New York, has seen sales of his sculptures and paintings soar in recent years. The KAWS Album, the artist’s take on the cover sleeve of “The Simpsons” Yellow Album—itself an appropriation of the cover sleeve of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—sold for $14.7 million in April. Rising prices—as well as a series of collaborations with retailers and fashion houses—have put Mr. Donnelly in the spotlight.
In “Blackout,” Mr. Donnelly largely pushes those characters into the shadows, but they don’t disappear completely. In the painting “Lying in the Rain Shadow,” a clown-like figure called “Chum,” who has appeared on KAWS items from sneakers to million-dollar paintings, looms large in the background of the canvas. Two more of Mr. Donnelly’s humanoid figures, BFF and Companion, stand brightly at either end of the gallery space. “Blackout” might be a new direction, but it’s not a clean break.
“It’s abstract, in a sense, but everything that you’re seeing comes from existing imagery, and it’s sort of like a vocabulary I’ve been working with since the beginning,” says Mr. Donnelly.
The artist’s Skarstedt show coincides with “Companionship in the Age of Loneliness,” a major retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia, that surveys more than 25 years of the artist’s work, going as far back as his high school sketchbooks. That show, says Mr. Donnelly, allowed him to re-evaluate the continuities that have marked his career.
“It’s interesting how things sort of keep reoccurring in the work. And it’s not really intentional. It’s just what I go to,” he said.
Mr. Donnelly is unabashed about reusing existing works—his or others—as source material. Even those canvases described as abstract feature the double-X eyes common to his best-known work. Here, they’re enlarged, obscured by acrylic finishes, rendered almost unrecognizable.
“Blackout” starts the same week as the London contemporary art show Frieze gets under way in nearby Regent’s Park. Mr. Donnelly says that, aside from showing one piece at Frieze Sculpture two years ago, he last showed in London in the early 2000s in a show put on by friends. In essence, he says the shows are similar. He’s still just trying to communicate with anyone interested in seeing what he has to say. Though he’s levelheaded about his work, he can’t totally ignore the change that comes with this level of recognition.
“I have ‘oh, s—’ moments all the time,” says Mr. Donnelly, pointing to some of his largest-scale projects like floating a 121-foot version of Companion in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour and posing the same figure in front of Mount Fuji in Japan. “Even just coming off the show from NGV and being in Melbourne. You know, it’s really far from New York,” he says.
Write to Mischa Frankl-Duval at Mischa.Frankl-Duval@wsj.com
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