Cuddling With Little Girls, Dogs and Music
By: Roberta Smith
Feeling a tad museum-phobic? Cowed by expanses of immaculate white walls? Whipsawed by hermetic, aloof artworks? If so, Asia Society has the cure. It is “Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool," a homey, user-friendly exhibition that can feel like a little piece from somewhere over the rainbow.
Titled after a 1973 song by the soul musician Dan Penn, the show surveys the unfailingly accessible paintings, sculptures and drawings of the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. A wry, beguiling if sometimes uneven blend of art, life, music and make-believe, it even includes a selection from his vast collection of beloved rock albums. The nearly 200 works on view range from 1984 to the present. Many pieces are displayed within a wonderland of wood-scrap passageways, rooms, houses and clapboard walls contrived by Mr. Nara and his frequent collaborator, the designer Hideki Toyoshima. These structures make the galleries all but disappear, forming a nonthreatening frame for Mr. Nara’s seemingly childlike art.
This exhibition is a game changer for Asia Society, where the conceptual, the political and video tend to dominate contemporary-art programming. Organized by Melissa Chiu, director of Asia Society Museum, and Miwako Tezuka, its associate curator, the show represents the first time a contemporary artist has been allotted the entire museum, à la Matthew Barney at the Guggenheim and Urs Fischer at the New Museum. It suggests an ambition to figure more prominently in New York’s contemporary-art scene. It also adds new wrinkles to the continuing attempts by today’s museums to attract wider, younger audiences, and the growing emphasis on viewer participation.
Mr. Nara, 50, has been exhibiting in Japan and Europe since the 1980s, in Los Angeles since 1995 and in New York since 1999. Has New York been the last to know? Perhaps an artist who specializes in motifs that have the insouciant, neutered charm of children’s-book illustrations (which Mr. Nara has also made) has difficulty getting his due here. This is in contrast to Mr. Nara’s partner in Japanese-art stardom, Takashi Murakami, or the American Jeff Koons, two artists whose populist outreach resembles Mr. Nara’s but also includes forays into sexual and occasionally pornographic territory.
Mr. Nara’s is a cuddlier, even nerdier sensibility. He is best known for tackling or, perhaps more accurately, finessing life’s big questions with a cast of irresistible, cartoonish little girls and dogs. The girls rule. Rendered foremost in luminous paintings as simple shapes on monochrome grounds, they can be beatific or blissed-out, but tend more often toward resentful, rebellious or demonic, with abbreviated, fingerless arms that always suggest clenched fists. There may be a feminist subtext here, but there is nary a whiff of sex.
Childhood emotions and memories and their persistence through life — the children we once were, the children we remain — are primary among Mr. Nara’s subjects. His art is the product of a painfully lonely childhood salvaged by an early and profound love of rock music. The girls often wield guitars and spout song titles and lyrics, from Neil Young (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”) to the Ramones (“Blitzkrieg Bop”) to Green Day (“Promise me no dead end streets”).
New York aside, Mr. Nara’s characters have earned him something like rock-star status and a cult following, not only in Japan but also throughout Asia. Factors in his popularity include his incessant blogging and use of Twitter, his books and album covers, and the proliferation of his signature characters and phrasings on T-shirts and mugs, stuffed animals, toys and so on.
In this regard, Mr. Nara may be one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring. He seems never to have met a culture or generation gap, a divide between art mediums or modes of consumption that he couldn’t bridge or simply ignore. His art is highly synthetic, representing fusions of high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile; and so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot.
Although this exhibition emphasizes the connection between Mr. Nara’s art and music, its links to Japanese visual traditions and to Western Modernism are equally apparent. Built up from thin, brushy layers of acrylic, his gauzy-surfaced paintings repurpose the saturated hues and bold compositions of Color-Field painting and Japanese screens while drawing on the buoyancy of Disney and the anarchic energy of manga. They can also recall the kitschy, wide-eyed moppets of Margaret Keane while evoking Paul Klee and the ancient instinct for human portraiture that feels emotionally real but isn’t realistic.
Mr. Nara’s paintings send so many different signals that they’re almost passive-aggressive. Their cuteness is slightly off-putting, but the emotional directness can hold you just long enough for the formal acuity of the images to settle in.
Similarly, the dog sculptures low-ball the flawless artifice of both American Minimalist sculpture and Edo lacquer boxes while preserving a loopy elegance leavened with tender touches of reality: note the green canvas collars worn by the three large, friendly white animals converging in the sculpture “Dogs From Your Childhood.”
The latest addition to the Nara repertory is a series of fey yet imposing black-and-white figurative vases with faces and symbols, and phrases in English, Japanese and German. Their undulant forms evoke Warhol’s cookie jars, Russian nesting dolls and peasant art everywhere. They are also occasions for a brushy, thick-lined drawing style that is part American graffiti, part Japanese ink painting, and either way a welcome departure from the refinement that plagues many of Mr. Nara’s drawings.
The Asia Society show often feels like a village. You walk through or step into some of its structures: for example, a row of small rooms — each with a different wood floor and brightly colored door — that display one or two works each, but might easily house the Seven Dwarfs. In other spaces you can plunk down on patchwork pillows to watch a slide show of photographs from Mr. Nara’s travels while listening to the lilting songs of Mary Hopkin and Michelle Shocked.
Two of the show’s largest paintings — relatively crudely rendered works on wood that the artist calls billboards — are displayed behind clapboard walls with small square openings cut in them, not unlike a countrified construction site. Looking at them is a protracted, piecemeal process, and weirdly intimate.
The installation culminates in a steep-roofed little house out of “Hansel and Gretel” — minus the witch. It is a drawing studio inspired by Thoreau but surrounded by the white draping of a circus big top: an apt metaphor for the tension between private creativity and public display. Its spire is incised with a peace symbol and a circled capital A for anarchy, and topped by a glowing gold ceramic sculpture of an elephant reminiscent of Ganesha, the Hindu god of love and prosperity. The house itself sits on a group of bright colored cylinders that are worthy of that other elephant, Dumbo.
The walls of this little dwelling, visible through four square windows with patchwork curtains, are lined with drawings; the interior is dominated by a low work table strewn with pencils and more drawings. Each depicts a tough little girl who has something to say. The totality intimates a driven, incessantly working artist from whom, in all probability, we will be hearing much more.