10/15/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014



Philadelphia -- The best way to see the future is, first, by taking the staircases marked, "City Hall." Exiting the SEPTA subways at this center city junction, and ascending the aforementioned stairs, affords one the opportunity to encounter the surface of Philadelphia, starting from the courtyard of it's administration's seat. It's an important embarkation point, as there is, in the middle of the elaborate granite and brick expanse, a compass indicating the direction north.

Walking past the enormous columns and arched throughways, it becomes immediately clear this is a city that reveres it's history and traditions. From City Hall, one will pass on their right, the behemoth Masonic Lodge -- another testament to craftsmanship and permanence. Just further north on Broad Street, across from the futuristically remodeled Pennsylvania Convention Center, and beside the modern art sculpture of a Cold War era bomber plane re-imagined into a working greenhouse, stands the venerable Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art; the first and oldest art school and museum in the nation. And, it is an interesting confluence of styles and ideas that one has traversed the two blocks to get here.

Ancient, by American standards, the Second Empire and Gothic architecture that identifies Philadelphia past, is met with the curved metal and glass futurism of Philadelphia present within just a few hundred feet. This is most successfully displayed with the opening of PAFA's new KAWS exhibition. The literally crowning achievement is his brightly painted, seemingly flexible, aluminum sculpture mounted on the plinth overhanging the archway of the more than two hundred year old building. The figure, "Born To Bend," reminiscent of two childhood toys, simultaneously suggests whimsy and welcome -- which might be just what a visitor to this historical city is looking for.

KAWS, a native of Jersey City, New Jersey, and now residing in the artist enclave of Brooklyn, is known for using pop culture iconography to cause viewers to consider the world around them differently. For the last six months, been having a casual discussion with Philadelphia about the continuing evolution of the art; it's re-definitions, the audience to whom it speaks, it's relationship to the past, and it's place in the world around it. Last April, KAWS constructed one of his signature, cartoon mouse-like sculptures, this one called Companion (Passing Through), mounting on the west side interior of the also majestic 30th Street Station.

The sixteen foot high sculpture, it's face covered with white gloved hands, was a shout across the room to the also sixteen foot high World War II Memorial statue of male angel, wings stretched upward as it carries the body of a mortally wounded man. That conversation was about the state of war this nation was, and had been in for the last decade plus, memorialized and lionized on one side of the room and, perhaps, unspoken and ignored on the other. It's significance and biting sarcasm are indicative of some of KAWS work. Thousands of travelers pass through 30th Street Station daily, but how many considered the giant statues?

The same can be said of the sculpture now resting atop the PAFA plinth. With little fanfare, the sculpture appeared last Friday atop one of the oldest buildings in the city; one which thousands of people will pass on their way home, to work, or to play. With his characteristically understated manner, KAWS has managed to scream boldly and loudly, "look at me," without actually calling attention to himself. The figure's chartreuse, Gumby-like half, with it's arm extended, almost beckons (or challenges) the viewer to come inside and see what else lies inside. It is a both careful and abrupt juxtaposition of the classical and the avant garde -- as if aliens landed on Earth, and decided not to change anything, but rather, to move beside and become neighborly.

Walking into the PAFA Historic Landmark building, one is met by a wide, imposing gray stone staircase. The eye naturally leads upward, asking what lies ahead. The domed ceiling and gold ornamented walls cause one's head to swing up and down, from side to side, drinking in the stately rich burgundy and blue tones of the rooms, with their floor to ceiling paintings from the 18th century nestled comfortably therein. Characteristic of the building, oil paintings of George Washington are to be expected. What may not be expected, yet, totally apropos, are the tall, multi-colored Mickey Mouse-esque sculptures, their bodies sometimes cross sectioned as if in reference to the various plasticized "Bodies" exhibits we've seen over recent years. KAWS @ PAFA features a total of 76 paintings and sculptures, 42 of which were made specifically for this exhibition. The collection is so expansive so as to take over half of the building and, direct the conversation from the classical to post-modern and back, and most often, side by side.

A graduate of the School of Visual Arts, KAWS began his career as a graffiti artist, and is widely known in street, commercial and fine art worlds, having exhibited works in solo shows at the High Museum of Art, in Atlanta, Georgia, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, of Ridgefield, Connecticut. His works can also be seen at galleries internationally. Today, his work stands, literally, with the masters. It's impossible to know what they would have said in witness to his exhibition. Certainly, it would have been a lively discussion. In their absence, modern day viewers may engage their own.

KAWS @ PAFA from Craig Carpenter on Vimeo.

The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts exhibits KAWS starting October 12, 2013 through January 5, 2014

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.