I made it back to NYC in time to catch the final day of Yoshitomo Nara's Nobody's Fool at Asia Society, the first major retrospective of the artist's work in New York. The excellent exhibit which was divided into three themes: Isolation, Rebellion, and Music, and featured over 100 works from the 1980s through 2010, helped me see Nara's work in a new light. Instead of just seeing sinister and adorable kids and puppy dogs, I learned that the work of the king of "kowa kawaii" is much more than simply "creepy cute."
Nara was born in Hirosaki, Japan in 1959 to working parents who often had to leave him home alone as a child. This ingrained in Nara a sense of isolation which he extensively explored in his work when he moved to Germany from 1988-2000. During these twelve years, Nara explored emotions and vulnerabilities in children and animals, whom he finds interchangeable and representative of "loneliness and solitude, and signs of innocence and its fragility." The "submissive obedience" of a dog "sadly" reminds the artist of children (from the show's notes). To personalize his work even further, Nara once stated that the use of dogs in his work was a result of a failed attempt to adopt a stray when he was young. The use of children, dogs, and solitary houses symbolize the artist's lonely and isolated childhood.
Highly influenced by music, especially punk bands like The Clash and Ramones whom he listened to in the 70s, Nara's work exudes a punk spirit of independence and rebellion. Many of his works from the 90s include scrawled words "that express anger, frustration and the resolve to stand up to the challenges of life." In 1991, his painting The Girl with the Knife in Her Hand introduced Nara's pared down style featuring canvases focusing on a single subject on monochromatic, empty backgrounds.
One room in the exhibition is devoted to Nara's obsession with music, featuring ceramics emblazoned with lyrics from some of the artist's favorite songs. Also showcased in the room are 100 album covers selected by Nara from his extensive record collection illustrating his favorite album art and giving viewers an idea of his musical inspirations. His selected record sleeves include: Joni Mitchell's Clouds, Runt. The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, The Doors' Morrison Hotel, Jethro Tull's Stand Up, The Beatles' Revolver, The Rolling Stones' Flowers, Donovan's HMS, Loudon Wainwright III's Attempted Moustache, and Dan Penn's Nobody's Fool whose name Nara borrowed for the exhibit. Nara himself has designed album covers for Jim Black, REM, Shonen Knife (Happy Hour), and the Japanese punk band The Star Club. According to the show's notes, a possible reason for Nara's more recent characters appearing more contemplative rather than angry may be due to his current playlist of American folk and soul music. The program booklet for the show includes two playlists that "reflect Nara's most current interest in music"—the first list featuring rock selections from bands like Small Faces, The Flamin' Groovies, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Turtles, and the second list featuring picks from singer-songwriters like Dan Penn, Donovan, Mary Hopkin, and Vashti Bunyan.
Nara recently began collaborating with the designer Hideki Toyoshima using the name YNG in creating shack-like structures typically built from found materials to showcase Nara's work. Nobody's Fool featured three of their collaborative installations. Untitled (formerly Home) (2010) is a little house you can walk into and see three recent works by Nara, a maquette for his White Ghost sculpture that was on view a few blocks down on Park Ave and a 1983 video montage. Doors (2006) features five colorful doors of varying shapes and heights that you can enter to see assorted drawings, a sculpture, and a photograph. Drawing Room Between the Concord and Merrimack (2010) is a large, site-specific, mixed-media installation that features a hallway displaying new paintings and older drawings from 1992-2000 that leads to recreations of Nara's studio, a concert stage, and a carnival tent—"familiar, exciting, and inviting" venues. Prior to Nobody's Fool opening, Nara and Toyoshima held open studios at the Park Avenue Armory where they worked on rebuilding Home and creating new drawings.
Nara's Neo Pop, Edo period ukiyo-e print-influenced works are much more than cutesy kids with anger management issues and dreamy puppies. Nara's work is deeply personal and emotional, exploring "feelings of helplessness and rage" and "loneliness and rebellion," emotions that the artist has harbored for years and that have influenced his work. Learn more about Nobody's Fool at asiasociety.org. Closed January 2, 2011.
*Photos weren't allowed, but I managed to get a couple of pics. Also, see below for Shonen Knife's video Banana Chips from the band's 1998 album Happy Hour, whose cover Nara designed. In the video, the band members are animated in a style strongly influenced by Nara (sorry if the song's chorus gets stuck in your head...).