Yoshitomo Nara is a leading global contemporary artist whose practice first came to the fore in the context of Japan's influential Pop art movement. He is best known for sculptures, drawing, and paintings of cute children and animals that on closer inspection appear menacing. The style of his artwork is often associated with popular culture, from manga and anime to the graphics on music album covers, but it equally engages with Japanese visual traditions and Western Modernism.Read More
Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki, a rural town in northern Japan. It was at school taking a figure drawing class that he first became interested in art. From 1979 to 1981, he took art classes at the Musashino Art University. He then went on to study at the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in Nagakute, Japan, earning his BFA in 1985 and his MFA in 1987. He subsequently moved to Germany, graduating in 1993 from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and setting up his studio in Köln. After serving as a Guest Professor for a graduate course in painting at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1998, Nara returned to Tokyo from Germany in 2000.
It was in Germany that Nara began to craft a visual vocabulary influenced by his fascination with Neo-Expressionism and punk rock. During this time, he also painted his first portraits of the child that has become the most recognisable motif in his practice. The child, who Nara noted in an interview with Ocula Magazine is neither boy nor girl, usually appears as a sole figure against a plain background, dressed simply. While the figure's cartoon-like features can give it an innocent and 'cute' appearance, its actions often suggest an underlying subversiveness; Nara has painted the figure smoking a cigarette, brandishing a knife or crucifix, sporting vampire fangs, and simply staring directly and insolently at the viewer, amongst other scenarios.
Nara's portraits present a fusion of old and new traditions. The child's facial features—widely spaced eyes, stubby nose, slit mouth—are adopted from traditional Japanese Otafuku and Okame theatrical masks, while the poses are associated with anime and manga, and the overall compositions are reminiscent of Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The artist's sculptures, which for the most part present the child in three-dimensional form, are often coated in a liquid metal that cracks like the glaze on Song dynasty Chinese ceramics.
In 2001, Nara's figures achieved global acclaim and recognition with I Don't Mind, If You Forget Me, his first solo exhibition in a public museum, co-organised by the Yokohama Museum of Art, Ashiya city Museum Of Art & History, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Hokkaido Asahikawa Museum of Art, and Hirosaki's Yoshii Brick Brewhouse. This exhibition galvanised the artist's large fan following and also attracted critical attention from the art world. Around this time the artist came to be loosely associated with an avantgarde group of Japanese artists who gathered together under a newly coined art term: superflat. Other superflat artists include Takashi Murakami and Chiho Aoshima. Superflat came to be associated with the use of bright colours, patterns, Japanese cartoon motifs, and a critique of the country's hyper-consumerist culture. However, Nara has always distanced his work from political or moral purpose, noting it remains first and foremost an expression of his inner feelings.
In 2010, the Asia Society Museum presented Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's Fool, the first major New York exhibition of Nara's work, featuring more than 100 pieces, ranging from his early career in the 1980s to his most recent paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics, and large-scale installations. The Museum of Modern Art acquired a number of the artist's artworks and now holds over 130 of his pieces in its collection. In 2011, deeply affected by the Fukushima earthquake and its aftermath, the artist found himself temporarily unable to work. He subsequently did return to work, and in 2016 the Asia Society recognised the artist by awarding him one of three prestigious Asia Arts Game Changer awards. On the occasion of receiving this award, Nara spoke to Ocula Magazine about his work and the award, noting that 'I know the general public like me but I was always unsure if professionals in the art world appreciate what I do.'
Since 2005, Nara has been based in Tochigi Prefecture in Japan, where he feels that, isolated away from urban life, he is better able to focus on his practice.
Anna Dickie | Ocula | 2019