Who is behind the giant mice which have taken over Yorkshire Sculpture Park?

Consistently delivering outstanding exhibitions from world-class artists, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park attracts a wide and diverse audience to its galleries and parkland, but their latest show by KAWS, which opened earlier this month, has created a buzz like few others.

Small Lie, one of the giant mice by the New York-based artist KAWS which have popped up in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Picture: Jonty Wilde

KAWS, born Brian Donnelly, is a New-York based artist whose work includes painting, sculpture, printmaking and design. Born in New Jersey in 1974, he started out as a graffiti artist then in the 1990s went to study at the School of Visual Arts in New York where he quickly came to wider attention with his artistic interventions in the city’s public spaces, subverting advertising imagery on billboards, bus shelters and phone booths. Since then in addition to his art practice, KAWS has gone on to design toys, clothes and album covers – including one for Kanye West – and his collectors include musician Pharrell Williams, actor Tobey Maguire and Japanese fashion designer Nigo. This is an artist very much in the public eye, with an extensive, loyal fan-base – and a huge social media presence.

The conversation between KAWS and YSP first began two years ago after director of programme Clare Lilley selected one of the artist’s large-scale works Small Lie for the Frieze Sculpture Park in London which she curated in 2012 and 2013.

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“We were initially really interested in him because he is an artist who is interested in getting his work out into the public domain so it is accessible to a huge amount of people,” says Lilley when we meet in the YSP’s Longside Gallery the day before the opening. “It is there and available – and it can stop people in their tracks. For us to work with an artist like that was really exciting.” And the interest, it turns out, was mutual.

“He has known about us for a while. He knew that there are things artists can do here that they can’t do anywhere else in the world. He first came to visit in May last year – and things quickly developed from there.”

A lot has been achieved in a fairly short time-scale – it is a major exhibition, the artist’s first UK museum show, presented in the Longside Gallery and in the open air, featuring over twenty works. These include ten large-scale sculptures in bronze, fibreglass, aluminium and wood – six of which are in the open air, some of monumental size – and 15 brightly-coloured acrylic paintings with a series of five, Survival Machine, created especially for the show. “It was so good of him to do that series,” says Lilley. “I went to visit him in his studio in Brooklyn and I suggested that it would be good to have a triptych for the show. He said he wasn’t sure whether he’d have the time to do it, but even as he said it he was looking over his shoulder at some blank canvases and then he said if he did it, it would have to be five paintings.

“They are really complex and difficult to make and he mixes all the colours himself – some of those colours we have never even seen before – the paintings were literally finished just before Christmas.”

Another new piece, created especially for the show, is New Home 2014 which Lilley describes as “like a drawing suspended in space”. A transparent, very solid-looking free-standing piece, it features thick black lines, which look vaguely familiar; and the way in which the piece is sited in the gallery means that that the viewer can see other works through them. It weighs just over a ton and presented a particular installation challenge with special equipment being brought in to put it in place in the gallery. “It is technically really difficult to make,” says Lilley. “It took a long time to make – he loves the work of [Peanuts creator] Charles Schulz and you can see the Schulz line in there.”

What makes KAWS’s work so accessible is that his imagery immediately strikes a chord; taken from popular culture embedded in the collective subconscious. He conceived his signature style – the soft skull with crossbones and crossed-out eyes – in the 1990s and since then it has been a constant feature in his subversions or abstractions of cartoon figures and his subtle distortions of 20th and 21st century iconography. Versions of Mickey Mouse, Snoopy, the Smurfs and the Michelin Man all make repeated appearances in his work and this makes it instantly recognisable to the viewer and, in a way, comforting. “He noticed that Mickey Mouse, for example, has more resonance around the world than any other American character,” says Lilley. “He’s interested in the gigantic global reach of American popular culture.”

That familiarity can feel reassuring but that’s not to say his pieces are cosy, far from it – there is often an element of ambiguity present. They are open to interpretation in a variety of different ways – assisted by carefully worded titles – and while there is something joyful, warm and affectionate in much of the work, others contain more than a hint of irony, with some communicating an underlying sense of threat, menace or loss of innocence.

There are several examples of this ambiguity in the sculptures on display at YSP – Clean Slate 2014, one of the works in the Longside Gallery presents an adult figure carrying two children, one on his hip and the other under his arm – this could simply be a parent gathering up his own children or it could equally be something more sinister. Similarly Along the Way 2013 shows two figures walking close together an arm across the back of each other, eyes cast down – they might be on a relaxed companionable stroll, but might there also be a hint of some shared grief or difficulty?

Companion 2010, a seated figure, elbows on knees, hands covering his eyes, could be counting in a game of hide and seek but could just as easily be a depiction of despair.

Then there is the Pinocchio-like figure in Small Lie 2013, at 33ft the largest work in the exhibition. His nose has grown just a little, but the body language – hunched shoulders, head bowed – speaks of something perhaps weightier than a small lie. It is this complexity that makes the sculptures so intriguing; they are operating on many different levels.

“His work speaks of his time,” says Lilley. “The time he is living and working in and, while there is also a nostalgia element, it gives us a sense of the time we are living in.”

For Lilley it has obviously been a pleasure working on the exhibition – it is an unfair question, but I ask her if she has a favourite piece. “That’s really difficult,” she says. “I like them all for different reasons, but if I had to pick one it would probably be Good Intentions – the wood is so beautiful and you get a real sense of the parent and child relationship; it gives me goosebumps.”

One of the large-scale pieces in the open air, it is an exquisitely worked sculpture made in wood depicting a parent and child, the child is holding on to the parent’s leg while the parent tenderly cups the back of the child’s head in their hand; it is indeed very affecting. “What has been really lovely is coming here every day for the past couple of weeks and being with the works,” says Lilley. “I just feel really fond of them all. I can see why KAWS has this incredibly committed fan base – and that is everything to do with what his works are communicating.”

KAWS is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until June 16. There is a full programme of supporting events. The artist has also donated proceeds of which will go to the YSP. For details visit ysp.org.uk