I heard about the KAWS exhibition through a short BBC News video by art critic Will Gompertz. I’ll admit now it wasn’t my main reason for going to the YSP (my main reason was to see Main Street by Jonny Hannah). But I was curious and so seeing as the KAWS exhibition was in the vicinity of the Hannah exhibition it seemed silly not to take a look for myself…
The KAWS exhibition was spread across the outside grounds of the YSP and one smaller indoor gallery space. The work on show is varied, from giant outdoor sculptures which resemble cartoon like creatures, to large canvases brightly painted in a graffiti style.
I think that strangely enough I was more interested in people’s reaction to the art works than the pieces themselves. I don’t mean anything negative about the work, just that it seemed to draw a varied response. There seemed to be an odd mix of people coming to see the work; mum’s and young children, teenagers, middle aged couples but not many in the twenties to thirties range. Obviously I didn’t collect any real data on ages of people, so this is going on my guess work!
One particular response to the outdoor sculptures has stayed with me. A mum, perhaps in her late 30’s and two young boys (maybe between 5-10), were looking at the work. One of the boys was paying attention to the expression on the faces of the cartoon characters, he commented that they looked sad, and he wished he could do something to cheer them up. He asked what his mum thought, and she replied something along the lines of; “well it’s art sweetie, it’s supposed to be weird. I don’t know what its supposed to mean”.
She said this and then proceeded to have a selfie taken in front of the sculpture mirroring it’s pose, and off they went.
Part of me thought this was a really funny interaction, another part of me felt really sorry that the boy had engaged more with the work than the parent. He had found a way to identify with the sculpture, it reminded me of the way in which young children respond to seeing their favourite TV show characters in distress or trouble. It got me thinking about what KAWS was hoping to achieve with his sculpture – did he intend for people to feel empathy for these giant creatures? Why decide to give them human like postures and features? It also got me thinking about what our inner dialogue is around art, are we as adults to keen to dismiss those questions like, what is it, how does it make me feel, when faced with a piece of art that doesn’t fit our previous experience of art?
It also got me thinking about how the choice of setting affects our interaction with the piece. Seeing the sculpture’s in the setting of the park was something new to me. I’ve seen plenty of larger than life sculptures crammed into the white walls of a gallery space. But I’d not seen something so large sitting within a much larger context, the featured image gives some idea of how relatively small these sculptures appear in the vastness of the Yorkshire sculpture park grounds.
Its only as you get close to these sculptures that you can really begin to identify with them, and I found myself feeling strangely sorry for these sculptures, it’s interesting to see something so large, appearing so ill at ease. These are not proud looking sculptures, even the material choice, wood, gives a softening effect. They seem to fit inside the context, and yet they don’t. Perhaps this is precisely the point about cartoon culture, we use it for a purpose, to entertain or amuse or to teach our children ‘life lessons’ but the characters themselves are caught in our perception, they are not living, they are not free. Take those characters out of their normal context, outside of our TV screens and devices and they we don’t know what to do with them or how to place them, they’re familiar and yet alien.
The exhibition continued in an separate indoor gallery, we had a lengthy steep muddy walk to reach it! That aside, the works inside the gallery differed somewhat or at least felt different to those displayed outside. I found one particular sculpture amusing, a grey plastic looking mother like figure grappling with her two young children. It felt light hearted, like a commentary on figuring out how to be a parent. I think its funny to consider a cartoon character being used to show us an aspect of the human condition. I also think the smaller scale here, made me think it was more likely to be a mother figure rather than a father figure, and the grey colour and finish in plastic gives an even softer edge to the sculpture.
Along the walls of the gallery space hung some paintings by KAWS. From a distance they seem like the work of spray cans, but with a smoother finish. Instead they were painted carefully layer by layer with acrylic paint. I didn’t know acrylics could be used to such a vivid, bold effect, so that was something I learnt! I found it hard to focus on these paintings, because there were so many bright colours and different marks, it was hard to keep my eye on the whole picture as it felt drawn to distraction around it. I couldn’t help but think about consumer culture, so often it feels like a visual bombardment, we have screens everywhere, billboards, posters, leaflets. I wondered if the painting was some kind of response to the visual overload we see today.
I took a lot less photo’s of the KAWS exhibition than the Johnny Hannah exhibition. Partly this was due to me seeing more connection between my own practices and tastes to the work of Jonny Hannah than of KAWS. Also because it was really hard to find space/time to photograph the works. The space was full of people taking photo’s on phone’s, tablets and camera’s. At one point four or five people were crouched close to the ground taking photo’s on their devices of one sculpture, it looked like a crew photographing a model on a fashion shoot. Plenty of people also touched or began to play around the works (adults included), and I found myself surprised at the ease with which people had become comfortable with the art work. It seemed like the sculptures basis in cartoon characters had eroded any sense of reference or care around art that is often seen or felt when wondering round a gallery space.
Final comments are best left to KAWS himself, in a very brief interview with HYPEBEAST.