The current retrospective of Japanese Neo-Pop artist Yoshitomo Nara at the Asia Society is his first in New York, showcasing over one hundred works in a variety of mediums–including paintings, sculptures, ceramics, installations, poems, and drawings–all with the artist’s signature kowa kawaii, or “creepy-cute” aesthetic. Before the visitor enters the exhibition, there is an outdoor installation of Nara’s sculpture White Ghost, on view at Park Avenue and 67th and 70th streets. The sculptures are identical, and face each other across three blocks, acting as komainu, or protective guardians of entrances. The sculptures display a combination of slightly-sinister features with the aesthetic of friendly cartoons, a strategy repeated throughout the many works in the exhibition. Watch the AO Onsite video of White Ghost below:
More text and images after the jump…
The exhibition dispels previous criticism of Nara’s work as being primarily influenced by manga and anime, focusing instead on the artist’s love of music. As Nara explains in the exhibition catalogue, “The influence of music on me is far more significant than that of manga and other things, that people often talk about.” Throughout the show, which is split up into three themes of isolation, music, and rebellion, reference is made to the music of The Ramones, The Clash, Green Day, and other punk and rock groups that inspired the artist with their counter-cultural rebellion and contagious energy.
Nara’s musical influences are visualized through a number of different strategies. Often, the titles of works refer to punk or rock lyrics, such as White Riot, Little Ramona, and It’s Better to Burn Out Than Fade Away. More often, Nara includes lyrics into his drawings, in stylized script or typeface. In his new ceramic works, made in one of Japan’s oldest kilns in the Shigaraki region, Nara has painted song phrases and conversation snippets in black onto traditional forms, evoking the contradictory visual effects of both graffiti and Japanese ink paintings. In the same room, a wall displays record sleeves that the artist personally chose as inspirational, celebrating album art’s underrated capacity to blend music and visual art. Nara has also designed his own album covers for the Japanese punk band The Star Club in 1999, and Shonen Knife in 1998. Often in this exhibition, the artist’s own writings appear on scrap paper drawings, resembling song lyrics not yet put to music.
In addition to this synthesis of music and the visual arts, Nara collaborates with designer Hideki Toyoshima on the second floor of the exhibition. The team transformed the gallery space into a large-scale tree house, with wooden floors and false walls made of found materials punctured with holes, beyond which hang paintings by Nara. The halls in this area are lined with framed sketches. The final room houses the installation Drawing Room Between the Concord and Merrimack, which was produced specifically for this exhibition in a live performance at the Park Avenue Armory. Music plays in the background, and the centerpiece is a small shack filled with drawings by Nara tacked to the walls. The shack sits on round, brightly colored stages where children can climb freely and interact with the work. In this instance, music is the inspiration for the work, but also an important participant within the installation. It is intended to evoke the artist’s studio as well as a whimsical environment for creative play.
Childhood, both his own and others, is a meta-theme throughout Nara’s work. Critics often maintain that he has managed to capture the emotional essence of Japanese teens who feel a sense of helplessness, isolation, and rage within Japanese society. Many of the works combine disparate emotions into a seamless visual expression. Loneliness, anger, isolation, fear, and abandonment all feature in Nara’s portraits of children, dogs, and animal-child hybrids. Dogs and children are interchangeable characters in Nara’s works, both symbolizing for the artist obedience, loneliness, and solitude. For instance, the work Dogs from Your Childhood (1999) consists of three identical sculptures of dogs in a circle, who appear to be commiserating with one another. Nara began to strip away the inessential elements in his works until he achieved what has become his signature style in the 1991 work The Girl with The Knife in Her Hand. The layered brushwork gives the portraits a soft focus and slightly-hazy appearance; what appear from a distance to be solid colors are in fact an intricate multitude of hues. The backgrounds of Nara’s works are usually left blank or monochromatic, much like the children’s illustrations he admires. These works contain a variety of potential narratives that the viewer can unfold: children with menacing glances, dogs with child’s faces, children smoking cigarettes, and canvases that appear to be bandaged all participate in the exhibition.
Yoshitomo Nara was born in 1959 in Hirorosaki, Japan. His work is considered part of the Japanese Neo-Pop movement, alongside his contemporary Takashi Murakami. Said to have defined the quintessential kowa kawaii or “creepy cute” aesthetic, Nara has established a strong cult following both in Japan and abroad. He received his MFA from Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, after which he spent 12 years in Germany studying with acclaimed German painter A.R. Penck. His work has been exhibited in museums throughout the world, notably the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, and the Baltic Center for Contemporary Art in the United Kingdom. He is represented by Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York, and Blum & Poe in Los Angeles.
Asia Society [Exhibition Site]
The Ghosts of Park Avenue [New York Times]
Cuddling with Little Girls, Music and Dogs [The New York Times]
On Park Avenue, Art Inspired By Life [The Wall Street Journal]
Reclusive Neo-Pop Artist Yoshitomo Nara Opens Studio Doors [The Wall Street Journal]
A Museum Director’s New Direction [The New York Observer]
Dangerous Child’s Play: A Q & A with Yoshitomo Nara [Artinfo]