Much thanks to my good friend Kathryn, who reminded me about the exhibit Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, which is up until Jan 2 at Asia Society (70th & Park, NYC), and who encouraged me to go.
I don’t know if this is his first solo or retrospective show, but with over 100 works from a span of more than 20 years of his career, it’s about the best showing of his oeuvre I would ever expect to see.
I have to start by admitting that I have never really cared for Yoshitomo Nara so much. He seems a bit too ubiquitous – I saw reproductions of his work at a street market in Greenwich (or was it Hereford?), England, once – and while some of his works are definitely cute, for whatever reason they just never really struck me as particularly complex, deep, or interesting.
Yet, it was *wonderful* to see his works in person; the exhibit design and installation, the space they were displayed in, combined with the experience of seeing the actual works in person, made it really a whole different experience. Once again, I regret that I was unable to take photos to share this wonderful space with you, but a brief video on the exhibition website provides something of a taste of the mood and feel of the exhibition.
The New York Times slideshow and review can help reveal more for those who are unable to make it here to New York for the exhibit.
Walking into the first room, you are confronted with white walls and bare wooden floors that look intentionally slapdash and ramshackle, like a warehouse space, or an old schoolhouse that hasn’t seen renovation in some time. Large works that would span more or less half a wall are seen only through wooden portholes in the white plaster walls. Some works, such as “I Want the Motorcycle” (above right) clearly no more than sketches in pen and colored pencil on the back of a printed page, are framed in the simplest of wooden frames, while still others – works in acrylic paints on paper such as “Midnight Vampire” (right) – are framed in elaborate frames like you see in the European paintings galleries of major museums.
White curtains separate this section from the next, soft instrumental rock music beckoning you to part the curtains and see what’s beyond.
A colorful room surrounded by white curtains, lit by light bulbs in a variety of hues covered in lampshades of the same white sheets, is filled with multi-colored circular platforms, and a small house, all together a site-specific installation created for this exhibit by the creative team “YNG”, which includes Nara. He has done things like this house before; I do not remember the when or where of that (those) previous exhibition(s), but I have seen it in art history lecture slide shows. The house, roughly, oh, I don’t know, five feet square by twelve feet tall?, is topped by a golden elephant, and filled with sketches, looking like a child’s playhouse, his own private drawing room, that is to say, room for drawing.
I was really taken in by this, and by the design and atmosphere of the whole exhibit. The space itself made just as much of an impact as the works, if not more so; had the works simply been displayed on plain white walls, as is so common in contemporary art galleries these days, it would have been a far different experience, and quite possibly a lesser one.
I always thought of Nara Yoshitomo as purely (or primarily) a 2D sort of guy – sketches, drawings, paintings – but apparently he has been dabbling in Shigaraki ware lately. The combination of this centuries-old mode of Japanese ceramics, steeped in tradition, with the imagery and compositions perfectly typical of Nara – e.g. a cartoonish little girl shouting obscenities – is a wonderful juxtaposition, and his large (two feet in diameter?) circular dishes are really beautiful works of ceramic in and of themselves, for their simplicity and smooth, clean, sleek look. His pots, on the other hand, didn’t really do it for me.
“Dogs from your Childhood”. Fiberglass, paint. 2000.
The exhibit spans two floors, and four galleries. Moving upstairs, a small gallery contained three large fiberglass statues in the form of cartoon dogs in Nara’s distinctive style, pure white, with red noses and green collars, facing inwards as though speaking with one another. The gallery label said that in Nara’s work, dogs and other animals represent children, specifically in their submissiveness, and in a sad way, reflecting the powerlessness of children and animals. A poem, written in pen on simple lined notebook paper, accompanies the piece. It is amazing how such a simple plain thing – little different from a sketch on a napkin – can be kept, preserved, conserved, framed and displayed in this manner as a priceless artwork, a priceless cultural product of a world-renowned artist.
From the expanding watchtower
of my frontal lobe,
My thoughts race beyond the dream
mountains to the wide open wilderness
where a wafer moon gently melts.
In the midst of the milk white fog
a dog spins around and around.
Boarding a plane on the pier of my heart,
A transfusion line flies off,
Sightseeing its way towards that dog.
If the gathered past becomes the present,
Then perhaps the fragment of the imploding
now that is the dog, is me, is you, as well.
Yoshitomo Nara – Jan ’99
There Is No Place Like Home, 1984. Acrylic and crayon on paper. H. 21 1/4 x W. 28 9/16 in. (54 x 72.5 cm). Aomori Museum of Art
In the larger gallery on the third floor, arranged in plain white walls like a standard gallery, a disjunction from the environment of the first room, we are first presented with some of Nara’s earlier works, which do not yet resemble the distinctive, unique style he will later develop. They speak to me of a desire, or perhaps a felt need, a pressure, to be “artsy” for lack of a better word, to incorporate a great amount of thought and meaning, complex ideas and theoretical symbolism. His work “There is No Place Like Home” (1984; above; also, third one down on this page) is painterly, meaning the brushstrokes can be seen, can be felt, and it seems somewhat unfinished. Profound words in English emerge from a woman’s mouth, while other things happen all around her. It is busy, complicated, and dense with meaning – meaning that is completely unclear to me, the viewer.
I have rarely if ever attended a critique of the artworks of my friends in the MFA studio art program, and I do not know for sure what sort of advice or guidance they are given, but these early works of Nara’s strike me as the kind of thing one might be pressured to do in art school.
Remember Me, 2005. Acrylic on paper. H. 55 x W. 55 1/2 in. (139.7 x 141 cm). Private collection, New York.
It is ironic, therefore, I think, in a way, that he should be so successful and so popular with the far simpler, cleaner, cuter, more cartoonish works that he is indeed so popular for. In the exhibition, these early works are followed by large canvases which I have seen before as slides, but which are so much more impressive and breath-taking in person. There is something about the simple cleanliness of his solid pastel color backgrounds, and the pure size of the things, not super large, but a good four and half feet square, that I don’t quite have a word for, but which makes me just really enjoy and appreciate them. He incorporates actual sparkles as well, for the night sky in “Remember Me” (2005; above; also, second from the bottom on this page), and what is most intriguing and striking for me, the incredible use of color in his figures’ eyes. Up close, you can see that it’s just a little bit of pink and a little green, a dash of orange and a dollop of blue, but step back and I swear it’s like you can see the whole universe in her eyes.
The same goes for his works entitled “Gone with the Cloud” (2004) and “The Little Star Dweller” (2006) – these are the portraits for which he is most famous. The figure in a work titled “MJ” (2009) has his (her?) long, flowing, messy-looking hair covering one eye; s/he seems pensive, sad, emo, as though disturbed or upset or depressed. The labels say it is perhaps a portrait of Michael Jackson. This is certainly a possibility, but I sort of sense not.
Untitled (Nobody’s Fool), 1998. Watercolor on paper. H. 13 3/4 x W. 10 1/8 in. (34.9 x 25.7 cm).
The titular piece of the exhibition, “Nobody’s Fool” (1998), is easily among my favorites. It is quite clearly painted over an ukiyo-e bijinga print by Utamaro, whose signature is still quite visible on the right side, right under the hair pins. The black oiled coif and golden hairpins of Utamaro’s courtesan are likewise perfectly visible in the top half of the composition, though Nara has painted over the bottom half, appropriating the hairdo, and the format or genre of bijinga (images of beautiful women) to portray his angry young girl, who displays a scroll reading “(You’re) Nobody’s Fool.”
The exhibit goes on to describe an aesthetic dubbed “kowa kawaii,” or “creepy cute,” a term which I had never heard before, but which describes the feeling of many of Nara’s works quite well. Putting aside the deep-colored portraits, focusing on pieces like this one in which cute young girls wield knives, smoke cigarettes, and shout obscenities, there is a definite sense of the clash between innocence, and a very tough, self-assured, rebellious streak which is aggressive and thus off-putting. These are not girls you “gaze” at, like so many in the history of art, but rather those who gaze back accusatively, like Manet’s “Olympia,” refusing to be passive as the viewer, the voyeur, admires them.
Some of Nara’s pieces, such as “No Hopeless” (second from the bottom on this page), feature real bandages taped onto the canvas. The exhibit text speaks of this as a sign of violence, tying it into the knives and cigarettes, and thematically that is all well and good, though it does fail to acknowledge the fact, well-acknowledged in scholarship, that Nara does this when the eye underneath does not come out the way he likes. He is, in fact, an artist who very frequently paints over or throws out works he doesn’t like, as I would imagine many artists are…
The final section of the exhibit, entitled “Doors and “Untitled (formerly Home)”, an obvious reference to the band The Doors, Nara being a big fan of American classic rock, returns us to the feeling of that installation, liminal space environment of the first room, and to the theme or motif of the house, from the second room.
Doors, each in a different color, lead to small rooms in matching colors, each of which holds one or two artworks. The floors are bare, slapdash wood, and many of the works are on corrugated cardboard. The works are not left to attempt to speak for themselves, but are enveloped in an aesthetic environment which contributes to their reception and appreciation. Photos and video of girls who look eerily like Nara’s stylized depictions occupy other rooms.
It was sad to leave that space. Far from merely a display of 2D artworks in a sterile, elite, gallery environment, this was, as Kathryn said it would be, an experience. A departure from the real world, and the just-above-freezing temperatures of the New York City streets, and an entry into the world of Yoshitomo Nara. This, to my mind, is what more art exhibits need to be like. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s so important for properly experiencing the atmosphere, the aesthetic, the time and place and mindset of the art.
I eagerly look forward to seeing such a transformation of an exhibition space in Honolulu – though I am not holding my breath.
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