It strikes me that for Brooklyn-based artist Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS, seeing six of his faithful characters ‘CHUM’ and ‘COMPANION’—shown together for the first time—in the monumental setting of Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s 500 acres must be as novel for him as it is for the locals.
The themes in his work stem from the urban landscape – and his studio in Brooklyn’s 9th Street is the antithesis of the smog-free serenity of the Yorkshire moors. “It’s weird,” he says. “Outside the studio you can load up these sculptures into trucks sitting on the road, in Williamsburg nobody cares. And now seeing them here, it’s so cool.”
The exhibition consists of 20 sculptures, including the indoor show in YSP’s Longside Gallery, where new works like GOOD INTENTIONS, BORN TO BRED, HE EATS ALONE, and a new five-painting series specifically for the show can be found. “Tickets to his talk sold out before we’d even done any promotion for it,” says Clare Lilley, curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Clare first brought KAWS’ work to London for the Frieze London’s 2014 Sculpture Park, and it was her dream to see all of his sculptures together in this setting.
Brian Donnelley started his career covering freight trains in New Jersey with intricate graffiti, and defacing billboard ads with his Mickey Mouse heads and X-ed out eyes. The characters were inspired by Japanese anime and it was a fascination with Japan that led him to Tokyo in 1999.
Everything that has come after, KAWS says, “was from chance encounters.” In Tokyo he met and quickly befriended A Bathing Ape founder Nigo, who would introduce him to Pharrell Williams, and later Kanye West “over a phone call when we were all sitting together at Pharrell’s apartment,” he says.
With Nigo, they launched OriginalFake, a line of figurines made in collaboration with Mediacom Toy, at the Bape Gallery in Tokyo, which now sell for US $2,5000 on eBay. In 2008, KAWS created a special edition album cover and art work for Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak propelling the artist to the forefront of popular culture. More recently, a collaboration with COMME des GARÇONS and Pharrell led him to design the artwork for the Girl fragrances.
Being both an artist and a brand is integral to KAWS’ way of working, and Brian uses Instagram to control ‘brand KAWS’ and disseminate his work to a wider audience. In works like ACCOMPLICE, a stern looking baby-pink Mickey Mouse, the half-peeled back skin of a Pinocchio-like CHAMPION (ORIGINAL FAKE) and the neon-pink Michelin tyre-man, CHUM, he absorbs images of popular culture and re-appropriates them in semi-familiar, reoccurring figures. These characters become familiar symbols for KAWS, reappearing again and again in new places all over the world – and for the first time together, in Yorkshire, of all places.
KAWS opens this Saturday and runs until 12th June.