For the first time, Philadelphia's 30th Street Station has a temporary sculpture installed in its lobby.

 

The classic art-deco waiting area is now adorned with a whimsical, 16-foot cartoon character, seated in a crouch and burying its head in its gloved hands. "Companion (Passing Through)" was created by rising pop artist Brian Donnelly, better known as KAWS.

The character Companion recurs in KAWS paintings, T-shirts, sculpture, plastic toys, and a balloon featured in the 2012 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. It's both an homage and critique of Mickey Mouse, with Mickey's signature gloved hands and short pants. But instead of protruding ears, there are crossed bones; in place of eyes there are Xs.

"It's a complicated relationship between the figure that is supposed to be happy and make you feel good, and what KAWS has done with it," said Harry Philbrick, museum director at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which commissioned the placement and is planning a museum exhibition of KAWS' work later this year.

What looks like a plush toy is actually is made of molded fiberglass over a steel structure. It weighs about 2500 pounds.

Journey began in Hong Kong

"Companion (Passing Through)" has passed through many locations already, including Ridgefield, Conn.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Atlanta. It was created for a ferry terminal in Hong Kong.

"In 2010, I had an opportunity to do a sculpture for Harbor City, Hong Kong," said the Brooklyn-based KAWS. "Just seeing the site and the amount of people, I saw myself as Companion. Having to be walked past by a million people a month, I was, like, this is horrifying. That's where the pose came from."

In the Philadelphia incarnation of "Passing Through," Companion is situated under the soaring ceilings of the classic Art Deco train station, across the lobby from the very sober "Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial" by Walker Hancock, featuring an angel ascending while holding the body of a soldier.

"Throughout history, you always see these figures representing proud positions, or with a superhero vibe," said KAWS. "I thought, times are tricky, and maybe a character like (Companion) can exist now."

PAFA to feature KAWS in fall

The temporary installation is a tease for the forthcoming exhibition of KAWS' work at PAFA, which will include an original sculpture installed on the facade of PAFA's historic Furness building. The building was designed with sculpture plinth above the front door, but has not had anything in place there for several decades.

PAFA curators plan to scatter KAWS' work throughout the galleries in the historic building, setting pop-art that has appeared on sneakers and skateboard decks against PAFA's centuries-old permanent collection.

"We wanted to work with KAWS to attract a different audience," said Philbrick. "Like all museums, we're challenged by the fact that our audiences are older and whiter. We wanted a younger and more diverse audience."

"Companion (Passing Through)" will be in place until May 14. The KAWS exhibition at PAFA begins in the fall.