The first UK museum exhibition by the American artist KAWS opened today at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Longside Gallery plays host to KAWS’ vibrant acrylic canvases and smaller sculptures in fibreglass and wood, while dotted across the park’s 500 acres are six monumental sculptures in KAWS’ trademark style, cartoon figures as tall as ten feet, with crossed eyes and doleful postures. KAWS will remain on display at YSP until 12 June.
Growing up in Jersey City, KAWS began his career as a graffiti artist before graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in illustration in 1996. After briefly working for Disney as a freelance animator, his body of work has frequently meant the refiguring and recontextualising of pop-cultural icons, such as Mickey Mouse, the Michelin Man, the Smurfs, and SpongeBob SquarePants.
KAWS’ acrylics and sculptures have been exhibited in both traditional and non-traditional art spaces. He was part of Beautiful Losers in 2004, which opened at Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center before travelling to Milan and Lille, and he put on two solo exhibitions at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta between 2011 and 2012, with a string of solo shows springing up since across galleries in New York, Los Angeles, Malaga, and Giswil. But some of his earliest and most successful exhibits came in concept clothing stores, including at Bape in Tokyo in 2003, while KAWS has been a regular presence at Colette in Paris.
KAWS has fashioned graphics, prints, and items of clothing in collaboration with Bape, Kung Faux, Comme des Garcons, Nike, Vans, Burton, Supreme, and DC Shoes. He has designed limited-edition bottles for Dos Equis and Hennessy, rugs for Gallery 1950, packaging for Kiehl’s, and toys in Japan for Original Fake and Bounty Hunter. In 2012 his greyscale clown Companion – based on Mickey Mouse, with crosses over his eyes and his eyes covered by his palms in a gesture of dismay – was adapted into a balloon for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, as part of the ‘Blue Sky Gallery’ series. And in 2013, he reworked the moon landing for MTV, creating Moonman statuettes and a giant inflatable for the year’s Video Music Awards.
Nigo of Bape and Pharrell Williams were among the early collectors of KAWS’ art. In 2008 he developed the artwork for the deluxe edition of Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, and as one of many magazine commissions, last October he designed the W Art Issue issue cover featuring Drake. A solo exhibition entitled Where the End Starts will commence later this year at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in Texas, before moving on in 2017 to Yuz Museum in Shanghai.
To mark the opening of his stint at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, today KAWS discussed his work and his influences – which include Claes Oldenburg and Keith Haring – with Clare Lilley, YSP’s Director of Programme. During the four-month span of the exhibit, the #KAWSYourself competition allows visitors to take selfies with the artwork, publishing them on social media for the chance to win a £50 KAWS goody bag.