KAWS and his army of cartoon giants land in the UK

KAWS and his army of cartoon giants land in the UK
KAWS and his army of cartoon giants land in the UK

    JUST WATCHED

    KAWS and his army of cartoon giants land in the UK

MUST WATCH

KAWS and his army of cartoon giants land in the UK 01:34

Story highlights

  • New York artist KAWS launches first solo UK exhibition
  • Former graffiti artist has worked with Kanye West, Pharrell Williams
  • His wooden toy-like sculptures have an air of vulnerability

Wakefield, England (CNN)Even if you don't know the name KAWS, you've probably seen his work.

Remember the warped Calvin Klein ads that merged graffiti and fashion? The limited-edition Kanye West "808s & Heartbreak" album cover? The cartoon-esque bottle he created for Girl, Pharrell Williams' fragrance with Comme des Garcons?
Or maybe it's his toy-like sculptures -- and actual toys -- which look like Mickey Mouse dolls with self-esteem issues, and sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, that have slipped into your psyche?
    Born Brian Donnelly, the Brooklyn-based artist began his career in the early 90s, graffiting ads plastered over what he considered to be public places -- his work became so popular, advertising agencies started to hire him.
    Since then, his work has been displayed at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York; he has collaborated with renowned Japanese artist Takashi Murakami; and sold toys at hip Parisian boutique Colette, all while subverting some of pop's most familiar faces, from The Smurfs to The Simpsons.
    And now he's brought his brand of street-inspired pop art to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP), a multi-acre outdoor gallery in the north of England.

    A photo posted by CNN Style (@cnnstyle) on

    KAWS goes wild

    "The first time I came to Yorkshire, I mean, it was amazing seeing this open landscape and, you know, those 500 acres of just like sprawling hills."
    It's a few days before the opening of his first solo exhibition in the UK. Donnelly is soft-spoken and relaxed.
    "This is the first time I've had so many of the sculpture works in one sort of sight line, so it's interesting for me to see them all together."
    The plan for the open-air show was hatched in 2014, after his contribution to that year's Frieze Sculpture Park in London.
    "Small Lie" -- his first outdoors wooden sculpture -- caught the attention of YSP Director of Programme Clare Lilley.
    She encouraged Donnelly to continue working with wood and proposed an exhibition at YSP, which has featured artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

    A photo posted by CNN Style (@cnnstyle) on

    The outdoor display features six works, ranging from six to 10 meters high, sat amid sculptures and trees. Were they at all menacing, it'd be a horror show. Instead, Donnelly's giants are embarrassed or scared or self-conscious or sad, traits Donnelly tried to emphasize with his choice of material.
    "I was making sculptures for a while and it was always, like, these painted sculptures, you know, in color, and then suddenly I saw the wood one -- it just seemed much more vulnerable," he explains.
    "The characters, their expressions are quite vulnerable. And I like the fact that things could happen to them. They do need to be cared for. If they're out, over time, they do need coatings. You know, it's kind of like having a plant. It comes from a living thing."
    Inside the on-site Longside Gallery, there are KAWS sculptures made from fiberglass, bronze and aluminum -- including the mortified "Companion (Passing Through)," his first larger-than-life piece -- as well as acrylic canvases.

    A photo posted by CNN Style (@cnnstyle) on

    "When we were choosing the works for the exhibition, there were two components -- the outdoor sculptures and the gallery space -- and I wanted them to have two very different feelings."
    While the inside works may look like toys, we all know from gallery protocol to keep our distance.
    Outside, it's a different story. Visitors knock on a towering wood figure to check if it's solid; mischievous children ignoring the "STRICTLY NO CLIMBING OR SITTING ON THE SCULPTURE" signs; people all of all ages gets hands-on for selfies.
    Donnelly compares watching visitors interact with his sculptures to his early experience of passersby assessing his graffiti. That is to say, he loves it.
    "It's always interesting for me to see how people interact with the work once you put it out into the public, and especially outdoors as opposed to like in the gallery space. There's nothing you can really predict," he says.
    "It's a great thing."
    KAWS is on at Yorkshire Sculpture Park from February 6 - June 12, 2016