Yoshitomo Nara puts the heart back in art

by Edan Corkill

Staff Writer

The induction of manga-style painting into Japan’s contemporary art canon over the last 15 years can be put down to the work of not one but two artists. Sure, it was Takashi Murakami who laid the theoretical foundations, spelling out links with classical painting and ukiyo-e prints. But it was another artist who provided the movement with its emotional appeal: Yoshitomo Nara. To Murakami’s brains, Nara provided the heart.

And whereas Murakami’s continued mining of that same intellectual territory he demarcated with his Superflat theory — cartoon characters, floating atop flat-plane backgrounds — has resulted in repetition, Nara’s heart appears to know no bounds. His latest show, “a bit like you and me…,” which is at the Yokohama Museum of Art till Sept. 23, is perhaps his best.

But it didn’t come easy for the 52-year-old whose casual appearance — jeans, T-shirt and top-heavy Brit-rock bouffant — belies a keen work ethic and a somewhat surprising degree of concern for how his work is viewed. Indeed, it turns out that the new exhibition is the latest of several attempted correctives to the way people perceive his art. Fortunately, each of those correctives has pushed his work in the right direction, and that is to increase — or at least make more prominent — his own emotional investment in his art. The heart that has always been the key to his work has thus continued to grow.

To explain, let’s wind the clock back to 2001, when the Yokohama Museum of Art hosted Nara’s first major museum show. Titled “I don’t mind if you forget me…” (after a Morrissey song; the current show takes its name from the lyrics of the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man”), it happened to coincide with Murakami’s first big solo show, at Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo.

Up until then the two artists had trodden very different paths. Aomori Prefecture-native Nara had studied at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music and then Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, in Germany, while Tokyo-native Murakami, who is Nara’s junior by three years, had spent over a decade at Tokyo University of the Arts. But with those concurrent shows their careers fell into step.

Nara’s paintings of children were constructed with clean lines and monotone planes of color that seemed to substantiate Murakami’s Superflat theory. Yet, whereas Murakami’s own works were populated by characters practically devoid of emotion, Nara’s evinced a delicious complexity. Looks of defiance, aloofness or confusion played on their otherwise too-cute faces; loneliness and melancholy lingered in their larger-than-life eyes; and sometimes the characters lashed out in open rebellion.

Where Murakami’s work had to be “read,” Nara’s had to be felt. But the relationship was mutually beneficial. Nara provided Murakami’s theory with its most likable exemplar, and Murakami lent Nara’s emotive works a useful intellectual crutch.

And yet, as Nara explains to The Japan Times during a recent interview, there were problems. “Overseas, everyone started to read the work within the context of Murakami’s Superflat theory. In a way, they can be explained with that, so that’s fine, but for me they were much more personal. All the children and animals depicted came from inside me, not from a theory,” he says.

At the same time, he started worrying — unnecessarily, I believe — that his fans in Japan weren’t looking closely enough at his art. “Some people started to read my work as though it was just made up of code. This is a dog. This is a child. This is cute. This girl is angry,” he explains.

Nara’s solution was unusual. In order to demonstrate to his audience that his works did not magically spring from some formula or factory, he decided to show them his studio.

Collaborating with Osaka-based design collective Graf, he began constructing miniature models of his workspace that he would include in his exhibitions. The models allowed viewers to see where his inspiration came — in the form of photos and posters on his walls and also the music he played as he worked.

Nevertheless, Nara eventually decided that the models engendered their own problems. “The collaborative element meant that ultimately they didn’t all go in the direction I wanted,” he says. (The current exhibition also includes a re-creation of his studio, though it is at life-size, and not a collaboration with Graf.)

These studio re-creations were Nara’s first attempted corrective to the way his art was received. The second came after the Great East Japan Earthquake, when Nara was reeling, like the rest of us, from that tragedy.

“To be honest, for the six months after the quake, I couldn’t make anything — not sculpture or painting,” Nara says.

Asked to elaborate, he explains that the disaster made him question art’s role.

“If I had been a singer or comedian, then I could have just stood up in front of people and given them joy. But with art, it’s different. Art is something you can enjoy once you’ve got your life back in order, once you’ve got enough food to eat,” he says.

Nara eased back into his creative work only after realizing that making sculpture, which is more physical than painting, might prove therapeutic.

“I couldn’t make pictures on a blank canvas, but I found I could confront a mass of clay,” he says. “I wouldn’t think about it with my mind. I would just attack it, like in sumo, with my body.”

Thus Nara’s response to March 11 gradually fell into line with his original desire to remind viewers that his works were personal, and not the product of a machine or theory. He would sculpt in clay with his body, and then use the resulting shapes to make molds from which he could cast sculptures in bronze.

In the current exhibition, those sculptures fill one gallery, and they are as expressive of their subject matter — heads of young girls with the usual enigmatic expressions — as they are of the sumo-like tussle by which they were made.

They are covered in hand and finger marks. Often you can see where the artist has scraped his hands across their surface in what appears to be an angst-filled swipe.

Nevertheless, I found there is a slight disconnect between the apparent wildness of the technique and the subtlety of the facial expression he has tried to depict — kind of like Jackson Pollock had attempted a Mona Lisa.

But of course, that very disconnect also conveys the passion by which Nara obviously worked through his initial disillusionment with art.

When Nara eventually returned to painting, in around February this year, he could have adopted the same “sumo” approach. After all, many painters apply paint with their hands — and even their bodies. But instead he reined in that emotion just enough to channel it into very particular areas of his works.

The newest paintings, which are in the exhibition’s final room, present the same images of young children, with faces expressing the gamut of emotion known to everyone who lived through the events of March 11 and its aftermath: despair, hope, confusion, anger and of course wonderfully enigmatic combinations of all of the above. But those faces are bolstered by something new. Nara’s application of color has become more complex, more nuanced.

Look into the eyes of the subject in a work like “Miss Spring”: Where there used to be deep browns there are now matrixes of color. And the chests of his subjects; where there used to be the monotones of T-shirts there are now patchworks of color. And neutral backgrounds now present vistas of gradation.

Knowing that this change occurred in response to the events of March 11 adds to their poignancy. Nuance and complexity have invaded a universe that used to be so simple.

And if Nara was right about there being people who read his work as being just Superflat, then at last he may have found an incontrovertible response.

“Nara Yoshitomo: a bit like you and me…” continues at Yokohama Museum of Art through Sept. 23. It will also tour to Aomori Museum of Art from Oct. 6 till Jan. 14, 2013, and to the Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto from Jan. 26 till April 14. For further information see www.nara2012-13.org. See www.japantimes.co.jp for a Web-exclusive story on the use of Nara’s paintings in recent rallies against nuclear power.