Sporting Mickey Mouse bib and braces, outsize Dennis the Menace shoes and cauliflower ears like a prop forward from the days when scrums were a twelve-man* war zone, a menagerie of outsize cartoon character sculptures of indeterminate age and gender, created by New York multiple art practitioner Brian Donnelly, alias KAWS, currently resides down toward lake at Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
Given the rich British tradition of the Beano and Dandy comics and our enthusiastic embracing of Warner Bros' five-minute 50s and 60s Loony Tunes classics, the word cartoon usually implies humour, slapstick and exaggerated situations, a brief escape from warts 'n' all reality into a parallel world of teacher-baiting Bash Street schoolkids, cow pies and 'Acme' exploding bird seed.
However KAWS' giant cartoon figures – Small Lie stands 10m tall, its companions on almost as epic a scale – aren't playing it for laughs. Beyond the veneer of chubby cuteness they're visibly grappling with the same frustration, self doubt, yearning and anguish as the rest of us, uncomfortably straddling the line between comic strip escapism and the ups and downs of real life.
Thus Small Lie (2013) stands head bowed, arms hanging limply by its side, as though having just let out a long sigh of resignation. Or perhaps, with its uniquely long nose a la Pinocchio, it's the embarrassed child who's just been found out telling fibs to its mum. A short distance away, Better Knowing (2013) sits beneath the trees contemplating the indeterminate object in its hand but, again, the sense is one of dejection or regret rather than anything approaching contentment or curiosity.
Across the path there's a hint of playfulness in Final Days (2013) with its hands mimicking claws and a little bunny rabbit
tail: maybe it's an excited child running across the grass, doing its scary monster impression, to startle the couple in Along The Way (2013). As with Small Lie, this pair invites alternative interpretations: an elderly couple, backs bent with age, holding on to one another for physical and moral support; two juvenile friends bonding over a whispered secret shared; two sad souls clinging together for comfort. Similarly with All This Time (2013), too: is the hands over eyes and head thrown back attitude symptomatic of there being something it doesn't want to see? Or is it that awful, embarrassing, moment of realisation of a mistake made, a wrong thing said – an oversize KAWS signature foot planted firmly in the equally characteristic hardly-there mouth?
At first glance, the most obvious scenario is that being played out in the most recent of the works, Good Intentions (2015), where a child clings to the leg of its parent. But then the questions start to arise. Is it actually seeking protection and reassurance, as initially seems the case? Or is it grabbing hold in anger and frustration, not wanting to go where the parent figure is taking it?
It is this ever-present ambiguity, the just-beneath-the-surface discomfort, that defines the complex appeal of these attention-demanding sculptures, which are equally visually impressive whether rendered in strips of naturally-finished wood or whether the strips have been painted an almost metallic black.
Perhaps, too, there's a similar process at work in the siting of the pieces, for whereas most YSP outdoor exhibits sit comfortably in their green and pleasant setting, and relate in a positive fashion to their surroundings, this doesn't seem the case with many of the KAWS figures. Accidentally or deliberately
the characters are, it appears, lost in the landscape, the big spaces around them a source of discomfort, somewhere they'd rather not be.
Across the park in the Longside Gallery another, more varied, collection of KAWS' work is gathered. The cartoon figures are there again, including the massive Companion (Passing Through) (2010), painted in shades of grey and sitting, head in hands, on a plinth. There's colour, too, in the form of the pink rabbit Accomplice (2010) and the dayglo bright Chum (2009), this latter reminiscent of a pink blancmange Michelin man. Variations on the Companion theme include a pair of unnerving figures with half their 'flesh' removed to reveal neon multicoloured organs, taking to a physical extreme the light-dark theme running through the sculptures out on the grass.
There are also two series of boldly-coloured acrylic paintings: the eight-part Ups and Downs (2012), comprising close-up fragments of KAWS' iconic figures including repeated use of his trademark crossed-out eyes; and Survival Machine (2015), five pieces created specially for the YSP exhibition and ranged side-by-side along the back wall of the gallery. Here, it's what's not covered in the vivid splashes of colour which counts, as each one reveals the outline of one of his characters in the bare canvas.
Although it's the gallery display which comes closest to showcasing the full range of Brian Donnelly's work, the wide cross-section of people – from pre-schoolers to senior citizens – clearly enjoying the their encounters with his big figures in the park suggests it's these for which this exhibition will be remembered. And quite rightly so, too.
WfL rating: 3.5/5
Click here for more KAWS at YSP pictures.
* YSP and WF Live are in Rugby League (13-a-side, six forwards) territory…
KAWS is at Yorkshire Sculpture Park until 12 June 2016. Go to www.ysp.co.uk for more information and details of associated events.