The Unsettling Confrontations of Artist Yoshitomo Nara
By: Susan Delson
Posed against a blank background, the girl stares up at us like a small child. Her enormous head, small body and wide-open eyes signal “adorable.” Her vulnerability triggers our protective instincts.
But then there’s that knife she’s holding.
“The Girl With the Knife in Her Hand” was a breakthrough work for Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. Painted in 1991, it’s the first in a long line of female figures in his work that combine irresistible cuteness—kawaii in Japanese—with the dark emotions of adulthood: seething anger, sorrow, pain.
Hovering between innocence and violence, “The Girl With the Knife in Her Hand” was born, Mr. Nara has said, “from confronting my own self.” Other endearing but unsettling figures populate Mr. Nara’s drawings, paintings and sculptures as well, including crowds of sleepwalkers, flop-eared dogs on stilts and childlike heads submerged in puddles.
This season, Mr. Nara is the subject of two major museum exhibitions in the U.S. “I Forgot Their Names and Often Can’t Remember Their Faces but Remember Their Voices Well” is scheduled to open at the Dallas Contemporary on Jan. 30. “Yoshitomo Nara,” a retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), focuses on the artist’s abiding passion for music. Originally scheduled for last April, it has already been installed but is waiting to open until pandemic restrictions are lifted; the show is planned to run through July 2021.
Long before he began formal training, album covers were Mr. Nara’s introduction to art. The LACMA show opens with a wall of them—350 or so from his personal collection, chosen not only for the music but their visual impact. Mr. Nara’s love of Western pop music began early. Born in 1959 in the town of Hirosaki, he grew up listening to the all-night radio broadcast from a nearby American air base, immersing himself in Janis Joplin, the Beatles and Johnny Cash. “If you asked if I had properly understood the lyrics,” he once wrote, “the answer would have to be a definitive NO!” Even so, “the sounds vibrated into my body, and even acoustic folk songs were seared into this kid’s heart.”
Today Mr. Nara lives in Nasushiobara, a small city about 90 miles north of Tokyo and 40 miles south of Fukushima, where a massive earthquake and tsunami touched off a nuclear disaster in 2011. The event was a turning point for Mr. Nara, who immediately began volunteering in the affected communities. Feeling that art was of little use amid such devastation, “I lost my will to create,” he said in an email interview.
To overcome the block, Mr. Nara turned to ceramics. “I faced off with clumps of clay like it was therapy,” he recalled. He created a series of large heads “just using my hands,” which he then transformed into bronzes. Compared with the smooth fiberglass surfaces of his earlier sculptures, the roughly made, heavily textured bronzes “look sort of dorky,” Mr. Nara admitted. But in the aftermath of the disaster, “I felt in them a reality that allowed me to stand on my own two feet.”
The disaster also made Mr. Nara think more deeply about the area where he grew up. The Tohoku region, in the north of Japan’s main island, is thick with old-growth forests and traditional beliefs about trees, nature and spirits. In 2016, these musings inspired “Miss Forest,” a series of bronze sculptures depicting the head of a girl whose hair becomes a towering, conical evergreen tree. “I think of it as being close to the sense of indigenous people who have been communicating with the sky since ancient times,” Mr. Nara said. Both the Dallas Contemporary and LACMA shows include “Miss Forest” sculptures—an almost eight-foot-tall version in Dallas, and an immense, 26-foot-tall version in Los Angeles, installed just outside the museum.
Both exhibitions also showcase a generous number of drawings, which Mr. Nara likens to a visual diary. “His drawings are where he works out his emotional and psychological and intellectual thinking,” said Mika Yoshitake, curator of the LACMA show. “If I were to use a music metaphor, these are like the rough mixes before the final recording,” Mr. Nara said, adding that “in this unrefined form, only the most important things shine.”
In the last decade or so, Mr. Nara’s approach to painting has shifted. In oversize portraits like “Miss Spring” (2012) and “Through the Break in the Rain” (2020), the palette is richer and more layered than in earlier works. Ms. Yoshitake describes it as “an explosion of color,” with “a kaleidoscopic, prismatic element” in the handling of the paint. At the same time, “the figure is looking you directly in the eye,” said Pedro Alonzo, curator of the Dallas Contemporary show. “It seems like a different stage of life from the earlier work,” expressing a more complex play of emotions—pain mingled with happiness, anger with acceptance, and in some instances, a certain hopeful serenity.
Both shows also include work that Mr. Nara made since the pandemic struck. “I created these pieces with a feeling of not taking things too seriously—a feeling that I think is invaluable during this Covid pandemic,” Mr. Nara said. Still, he insists, “I am not an optimist.” Rather, “my aim was to take a deep negativity and reflect it in the mirror of myself.”