A 30ft figure towers over the rolling parkland of Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP). If the setting is idyllic, the figure’s posture, with head bowed, could be read as indicating dejection from half a mile away.
The artist KAWS wants his images to be easily understood. The head of this trademark cartoon KAWS figure is a simplified skull, with criss-cross eyes signifying drunkenness or confusion, while the round head and balloon feet evoke Mickey Mouse. Yet this poignant cartoon colossus (called Small Lie) is constructed not from vinyl or fibreglass as you might expect, but from slices of African hardwood, with the contrasting grains painstakingly alternated to create an effect reminiscent of parquet flooring.
If you’ve never heard of KAWS, you probably aren’t into skateboarding or limited edition T-shirts. Born Brian Donnelly, the 42-year-old New Jersey-raised, Brooklyn-based sometime graffiti artist, painter and product designer is a superstar in a cultural sphere where fine art, fashion brands and social media naturally interact – where Pharrell Williams is known as an artist as much as a musician and Kanye West and Justin Bieber are major cultural patrons.
KAWS’s first sculptures were limited edition toys for the Japanese brand Bounty Hunter, and the stylised figures distributed around YSP in a variety of postures – shielding their eyes from the sun, seated in apparent contemplation or leading a child-sized version of themselves over the sward – have the appearance of gigantic toys, with their instant legibility and machine-honed surfaces. But are they anything more than extremely large, fun objects?
Further sculptures in YSP’s (indoor) Longside Gallery show KAWS’s figure in more roles, in diverse and immaculately crafted materials (a fluorescent pink Michelin man in fibreglass, a figure carrying two children in matt-painted bronze). Here Sixties Pop Art’s original use of cartoon imagery feels a million years ago, and even Eighties’ graffiti-inspired artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat look a touch crude and amateurish beside KAWS’s ruthlessly honed finish.
Figures with sections cut away to reveal brightly painted interior anatomy suggest American master of the grotesque Paul McCarthy. Yet, rather than sinister, KAWS’s figures appear blankly benign – blank but not bland. There’s something hypnotically compelling about the experience.
Born in affluent suburbia, while studying illustration at New York’s School of Visual Arts KAWS began to see that images on skateboards by the likes of Jim Phillips and Mark Gonzales had a value as “art” – much as Fifties artists such as Britain’s Peter Blake began looking at ephemera such as boxing posters, at the dawn of Pop Art.
But KAWS has taken this approach back into the commercial arena with bravura. Working with brands from Comme des Garçons to Hennessey’s Cognac, he has thrived particularly in Japan, where the distinction between high and low culture is virtually meaningless. The artist KAWS most resembles is the Japanese multi-media superstar Takashi Murakami, with sources in anime and manga.
Yet, in truth, there seems nothing too commercially cynical in the work at YSP. The very craftedness appears evidence of a touching desire to strike an emotional chord with the viewer. Where a figure looks sad, like the gigantic figure with its head in its hands, sitting with its back to Longside’s glorious view, we are intended to empathise on an almost child-like level, while admiring the layers of “art” that have gone into it.
Meanwhile, a sequence of five paintings, developed with Illustrator software, with a cuddly toy plummeting through layers of ambiguous painterly space, makes brilliant use of colour and the kind of free-drawn lines you see in Peanuts cartoons. Bucolic West Yorkshire might seem an unlikely place to confront the cutting edge of digitally enabled commerce-art, but I found it well worth the journey.