Review: Artist KAWS at The Yorkshire Sculpture Park


For his first major UK show, influential Brooklyn-based artist KAWS has chosen the expansive, green landscape of The Yorkshire Sculpture Park as his arena. KAWS has a wide ranging practice that includes sculpture, graphic design, toys, paintings and prints, making this highly anticipated exhibition an exciting move for the park.

Born Brian Donnelly in New Jersey, he graduated from the New York School of Visual Arts with a BFA in Illustration in 1996. His early work as a graffiti artist saw him subverting imagery on billboards and advertisements, adding his own signature caricatures, and sky-rocketing his popularity in the process. The pop art themes integral to urban art have had an obvious influence on the body of work presented at YSP, in which he has created an array of his trademark characters, with their instantly familiar crossed eyes and skull and crossbones heads.

KAWS has played a huge part in popular culture over the years; the artist has been called upon for numerous high profile collaborations. From international brands and publications such as MTV, Comme des Garçons, Nike and W and I-D magazine, to working with celebrities such as Kanye West, Drake and Pharrell.

The exhibition unfolds after a short walk into the lower park. The towering, large scale sculptures, with their anti Mickey Mouse torsos, invade the viewer’s perspective instantly. These large scale, outdoor sculptures are created using a variety of materials, such as wood, iron, fibreglass and bronze. The overarching sentiment shared by these monumental characters, is that of worry and despondency, and this grows increasingly evident within ‘At This Time’ and ‘Small Lie’, which sees the towering creations stand utterly hopeless, heads in their huge cartoon character hands. These references to Disney characters and links to ideas of misery create extremely visceral feelings for the spectator, through the juxtaposition of themes of sadness and joy.

However, the awe inspiring, outdoor display of KAWS work is only the first part of the exhibition. The next steps one must take are through dozens of sheep and mud, and after a short walk across a huge field, (a slight challenge for the less outdoorsy!), you are rewarded with part two of the KAWS show in The Longside Gallery. The inside space also features KAWS trademark characters, but on a much smaller scale. Situated on many of the full length walls are large, vibrant canvases with acrylic paint finishes. A piece titled ‘Survival Machine’, permeates the scene with its instant draw of bright colour and connections to popular figures of mass culture. This huge piece is perhaps the most interesting in the gallery. Through its use of such vivacity, the piece stands solitary against many of the other neutral coloured pieces. It draws instant attention and focus, proclaiming itself as the focal point in the gallery.


Another standout feature of the inside space is the piece titled ‘Chum’. A dazzling, neon pink, michelin man lookalike, standing alone, chest inflated. To compare ‘Chum’ to the outdoor sculptures, that seem so worried and upset, this piece emulates confidence and self-assurance. The connotations of the deep pink refer to richness and wealth, and the inflated body conjures up notions of gluttony and indulgence, referencing perhaps, the greedy, all consuming attitude of the modern world.

The expansive space allows for free-flowing movement and crucial audience interaction with the pieces. The vast space of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, along with the distance between the two parts of the exhibition, could be read as a comment on mass culture and globalisation. It is possible, that the distance between the two exhibits could reference the growing interconnectedness of the world. Various factors such as social media have allowed the world to be more in touch then ever before. It is this constant stream of contact, evidenced by KAWS presentation of the space, that acts as a metaphor for the way that we conduct ourselves in the 21st Century.

Running from February 6th until June 12th, the exhibition is a compelling fixture in Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s calendar. For us lucky Yorkshire folk, the free entry is more than incentive to see the work of a hugely talented artist, in such lush surroundings. As the seasons begin to change, no matter rain, snow or sunshine, this is definitely not one to be missed.