Somewhere in the green between Barnsley and Wakefield lies the sprawling parkland of Bretton Hall. The grounds of the 18th century estate are a pleasant walk with their remnants of playful and creative architecture from days gone by including a Shell Grotto and a Greek coliseum. However, these grand acres are best known as the home of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where a handful of contemporary galleries are surrounded by beautiful countryside and a treasure trove of sculptures by a range of respected artists. This leading open air gallery is a place that can easily consume a whole afternoon and still leave you aching to stay.
In the snow of January the park welcomed to its grounds a series of sculptures by Brooklyn artist KAWS. KAWS is perhaps best known for his designer toys and distinct street art style. His name itself was chosen for its aesthetics when spray painted on a wall. As a designer toy collector myself I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to while away a sunny day at KAWS’ first ever UK exhibition to see how a leading name in a niche art form tackles the British contemporary sculpture art scene.
The exhibition features humongous wooden sculptures outdoors alongside a range of fibre glass and acrylic works at a takeover of the YSP’s Longside gallery. It’s just minutes after entering the park before you encounter the site of these behemoth structures, standing at heights up to 10 metres high we’re immediately infantilized by their sheer size. The artist’s distinct style, as we’ve seen in his toys so many times before, is repeated here, marring familiar elements of a Mickey Mouse type character with a slick skull and cross bones twist inflated in the sculptures to a phenomenal degree.
His simple style and smooth execution lead us to feel that these sculptures are like big toys themselves, their lack of detail leading them to look almost mass produced. His nods to cultural icons and American advertisement mascots feeds this Warhol-esque image of KAWS as a man who marries consumerism and art, the underpinning crux of the designer toy industry he has built his name in. The familiarity of the cultural references used invokes nostalgia and innocence within the observer, two things which many of the pieces seem to focus on the loss of. Drunken friends in a state of revelation, Pinocchio type long nosed characters and big headed toddler-esque pieces seem to capture all of those small moments that culminate in the phenomenon that is simply growing up.
The smooth wood of the sculptures is a medium that is at home amongst the trees yet within the sculptures it is softer, with its edges sanded away, highlighting this sense of nostalgia as a biased storyteller. In the Longside gallery the paintings and fibreglass sculptures boast neon bright colours that scream playfully of graffiti and skate board stickers, tv adverts and comic books. It is from here also that the largest piece Small Lie can be seen most perfectly as it protrudes in the distance through the park’s trees, looming over visitors not even visible as ants and looking like a natural part of the stunning views across the parkland. The non-symmetrical and often slumped poses of the giant pieces again invoke this naturalism as they create the illusion that they have walked to the spots themselves, often slinking to the ground with the weight of impending adulthood.
Exhibited alongside pieces by artists such as Antony Gormley and Ai Weiwei the addition of KAWS’ work is a testament to the breadth of schools and styles that this impressive gallery site displays. The KAWS exhibition is absolutely an essential visit for designer toy collectors as it is a rare treat to see an exhibition of an artist from a scene that has never experienced much of a surge within the UK. However, KAWS’ playful style can also be enjoyed by all for having its place within the circus of juxtaposing styles mapped against a truly stunning natural backdrop that characterizes the Yorkshire Sculpture Park experience.
KAW’s exhibition ends June 12th. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is open all year round. More info can be found at www.ysp.co.uk.