brooklyn artist kaws takes his massive sculptures to the english countryside

We talk to one of the top artists of our times about his first major sculpture exhibition.

by Stuart Brumfitt
05 February 2016, 4:08pm

Courtesy KAWS and YSP

Even if you're not into art, you'll probably know KAWS from his Kanye West 808s and Heartbreak album cover, Pharrell x Comme des Garçons fragrance bottle, or indeed his awesome takeover of i-D's Stepping Stone Issue. 

KAWS, a Jersey City-born, Williamsburg-based painter, sculptor, graphic designer, and graffiti artist also has an obsessively loyal following from Tokyo to Timbuktu who go wild over his toys, clothes, and animations. It's this combination of mass appeal and devoted superfans that means his latest show at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in England is set to be the site's biggest blockbuster yet. 

Fans from America and Europe already have plans to head up to the 500 acres of land in Wakefield to see his 30-foot characters (some shattered, some shy, some protective, some playing hide-and-seek) dotted through the rolling Yorkshire hills, where they share the landscape with sculptures from local legends Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, as well as international talent James Turrell, Ai Wei Wei and Joan Miró. There are also new paintings and further sculpture in the Longside Gallery, which overlooks the land and the lakes of the Bretton Hall estate. 

As with his early graffiti on freight trains and his cleverly altered bus shelter ads and billboards, KAWS's work at the YSP shows his love of the kind of art that stops people in their tracks — something totally at odds with his own, more introverted character. The works play with material, volume, scale, and balance. Clare Lilley, the park's head of exhibitions and projects, believes that their greatest appeal is their ability to tap into vulnerable human emotions, showing characters who are forlorn, shy, or even ashamed. 

Here, i-D speaks with the artist KAWS about his new exhibition:

"Along The Way, 2013." Courtesy KAWS and YSP. Photography Jonty Wilde

Are the outdoor works prepared for all this Yorkshire weather?
They're all made of wood and built like a boat. And they're heavy enough, so they're not going anywhere.

This is your first big UK exhibition, but is this your first time fitting the work into a landscape like this?
This project started after I met Clare Lilley for the Sculpture Park at Frieze, and that was the first time I'd put a wooden sculpture outdoors. Before that everything's been in an urban context like Hong Kong, or Atlanta, or Manhattan. So it's interesting.

It's like a city person heading out into the country.
It's nice, it's great to see. Even this show inside is the first time I've gathered the sculptures all on one site. Normally, I'll have just one or two in addition to paintings, or different rooms that you're wandering about. So it's weird for me. It makes me look at all the work and then just start to pick things out.

Courtesy KAWS and YSP. Photography Jonty Wilde

And then it's about creating these relationships between them?
Exactly. We were going through the catalog of sculptures that I've done and just thinking what ones relate to what and compositionally.

Are there any in this room which are new?
There's Clean Slate. It originally started as a 23-foot-tall sculpture that we had in Shanghai and then I made a smaller bronze edition, so it's the first time we're exhibiting it. And this acrylic piece called New Home. The first acrylic piece was the first time where I'm approaching sculpture in the way I would approach my paintings. It's sort of creating things in layers.

What's the amazing finish on all of the works?
They're all different finishes, actually. If you look around there's actually a unifying look but this piece is bronze, this one is fiberglass, this piece is built in aluminum, so it's sort of exploring a lot of different materials. There are times where I'll discover how to use a new material and then I might get really interested in that for a moment, but then it always stays in my head.

"Small Lie, 2013." Courtesy KAWS and YSP. Photography Jonty Wilde

Are you going to get Kanye and Pharrell up to Yorkshire to come and see the show?
I'm not sure about that. But we have Clare Lilley!

So much art is in the big cities like London, Paris, or New York. Does it feel good to be coming somewhere new?
The truth is there are so many different ways to experience art. You're not going to get 500 acres of land in the middle of London and have it be free. It's great to have a show in Yorkshire, where they have such a rich history of artists from Henry Moore up to the present. It's great to get the work out in this way and I'm sure there will be people that come to see the Henry Moores and then stumble upon my work. And then there might be other people who have come to see my work and suddenly found an interest in some other sculptors.

You've been sculpting for about 10 years right? How aware are you of the canon of sculptors? How much do you care about that?
I look at everything. I've always looked at everything. Even when I was in college or doing graffiti art. I was doing oil painting when I went to school so I was looking at Rockwell and all these different people. I think with probably every artist, when they're first making their way, people think it's contemporary and of the moment. But I'll look at paintings as much as I look at graphics or different things online.

"Survival Machine, 2015." Courtesy the artist and YSP.

And what about any of the works in the park — have you seen any from the permanent collection?
I spent a good amount of time in the James Turrell room and that was really nice. The first week I got here I was staying here before my family arrived so I got to wander around a lot. There's great Miró sculptures up by one of the main gallery buildings. When you see the black pieces, there's a similarity to my black figures. They're just stark and beautiful.

Clare says that people from Europe and America have booked to come and see this show. It will be interesting to see the KAWS fan migration.
Yeah, bring boots; that's my warning!

KAWS at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, West Bretton, England, February 6 through June 12, 2016.


Text Stuart Brumfitt
Photography Nils Mueller for Wertical

Yorkshire Sculpture Park