Yoshitomo Nara

New York

Yoshitomo Nara: Pale Mountain Dog, 2000: Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 80 inches (127 x 203.2 cm). Private collection, New York. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery and the Asia Society, New York.Yoshitomo Nara: Pale Mountain Dog, 2000: Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 80 inches (127 x 203.2 cm). Private collection, New York. Courtesy Marianne Boesky Gallery and the Asia Society, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Yoshitomo Nara
Asia Society
September 9, 2010 - January 2, 2011

Like his fellow artist (and one-time room mate) Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara rose to international prominence over the last 15 years with work rooted in Japanese anime and manga comics. Also, like Murakami’s figures, Nara’s melancholy puppies and big-eyed, bobble-headed children have become ubiquitous, being plastered on everything from mass-produced t-shirts to limited-edition ashtrays. But, as this mid-career survey demonstrated, Nara’s art is much more personal and introspective than Murakami’s more flamboyant and sexualized oeuvre.

Yoshitomo Nara: Untitled (1, 2, 3, 4 Man), 2008: Coloured pencil on envelope, 14-1/2 x 9 inches (36.8 x 22.9 cm). Gervais Pappendick Collection, Boston. Courtesy the Asia Society, New York.Yoshitomo Nara: Untitled (1, 2, 3, 4 Man), 2008: Coloured pencil on envelope, 14-1/2 x 9 inches (36.8 x 22.9 cm). Gervais Pappendick Collection, Boston. Courtesy the Asia Society, New York.Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, the artist’s first solo museum show in the U.S., brought together approximately 200 works in a variety of media, starting with early paintings from the 1980s through to recent ceramic sculptures. Images of animals and children were present right from the start in his early paintings, which seem to reference German neo-Expressionism (Nara lived in Cologne and Dusseldorf beginning in the late-80s), but are also suggestive of the distressed surfaces of Basquiat’s paintings. In a painting like “Make the Road, Follow the Road” (1990), aspects of youthful disenfranchisement are also present, picturing a young girl cupping a flame in one hand and brandishing a knife in the other. The artist has said that the animals and children are his alter egos, embodying his own lonely childhood but, by the late-90s, they came to encompass the isolation, rebelliousness and alienation of the youth of Japan and elsewhere.

The majority of Nobody’s Fool consisted of Nara’s drawings and paintings inspired by American rock and roll, of which the artist is a devout fan. Nara’s kowa kawaii (“creepy cute”) little girls armed with guitars, cigarettes and knives are featured in drawings on scraps of paper and paintings with slogans like “1,2,3,4, Man!”, “Rock and Roll will/can never die!” and “It’s Better to Burn Out than Fade Away”. Several works reference Neil Young’s anthem My, My, Hey, Hey (Out of the Blue) from 1977, as well as songs by The Clash and The Ramones. As the wall text noted, Nara drawings often work out ideas for his large-scale, yet delicately rendered, paintings, but also contain inspirational phrases - “Pave Your Dreams. Make a Road!” or “Love. You’ve Gotta Love Something” - messages aimed at his audience as well as himself.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was a sprawling installation based on an earlier work entitled Home (2005). Built in collaboration with Hideki Toyoshima and the Japanese design team YNG, the installation consisted of individual small rooms constructed of found lumber. Only one or two people at a time could enter each room, which were hung with small paintings or populated by individual sculptures. Crouching to step into each room to see the work allowed viewers moments of solitude in the middle of a bustling gallery, which helped make the poignancy in Nara’s work come through.

The final room of the exhibition housed several new ceramic works from 2010. Based on traditional large round plates and gourd-shaped vases made in the Shigaraki region of Japan, these more organic works contrast with the slickly produced ‘sleepy puppy’ sculptures seen earlier in the show. The white, glazed, somewhat anthropomorphic ceramic works are painted with black, thickly outlined faces and song lyrics in English, Japanese and German. The artist also lined two of the room’s walls with 100 vinyl LP covers selected from his collection. Surprisingly, the artist’s picks skewed towards the folksy: the Beatles‘ Revolver, Clouds by Joni Mitchell, as well as albums by Cat Stevens, Fairport Convention, and Richard and Linda Thompson. Meanwhile, in the Asia Society’s lobby, a large painting on wood panel, Untitled (Lonely) from 2008, reads “so how can you tell me you’re lonely”, a line from the song Streets of London composed by the British folk-pop singer Ralph McTell. Perhaps, Nara is mellowing as he enters his 50s, but he continues to produce work according to his personal motto: Never forget the beginner’s spirit.