Installation view of YOSHITOMO NARA’s (left) Miss Margaret, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 194 × 162 cm; and (right) Wounded, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 120 × 110 cm, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), 2021. Photo by Laura Cherry/LACMA. Copyright the artist. Courtesy LACMA.

Beyond Cute: The Personal Symbolism of Yoshitomo Nara

Los Angeles County Museum of Art
USA Japan

A desire to enrich the mass appeal of Yoshitomo Nara’s bobble headed, big-eyed characters—licensed for use and emblazoned on everything from designer clothing to Band-Aids and tote bags—drove his recent retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which included more than 700 drawings and 100 paintings, sculptures, and installations. Nara’s work typically features a single precociously cute figure floating in blank space, and the mainstream popularity of his work can be misconstrued as simplistic or populist. Curator Mika Yoshitake redressed these assumptions by anchoring the work within a layered context of 1960s and ’70s American rock and roll, the atomic bomb and Fukushima nuclear disaster, and an emotional depth and resonance not often assigned to the artist.

YOSHITOMO NARA, People on the Cloud, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 100 × 100 cm. Copyright the artist. Photo by Norihiro Ueno. Courtesy the artist.

Two early paintings, People on the Cloud (1989) and Make the Road, Follow the Road (1990),  immediately dispel expectations of the artist and his now recognizable aesthetic. Made when the artist was studying in Germany between 1988–2000, they have the high-keyed colors and personal symbology and gestures of German expressionism. Asked about how his time in Germany influenced his work in a 2005 video interview, Nara quickly dismissed the idea, stating that the only lasting effect his decade in the country had on him was a confirmation of the isolation that enveloped him as a young child and that has always defined his existence. It is no wonder all of his paintings feature solitary figures.

YOSHITOMO NARA, In the Milky Lake/Thinking One, 2011, acrylic on canvas, 259.2 × 181.8 cm. Copyright the artist. Photo by Keizo Kioku. Courtesy the artist and Frahm & Frahm.

Political content appears throughout Nara’s oeuvre, such as in No Nukes (1998), painted over a promotional music poster and featuring a pig-tailed, cat-faced girl holding a sign emblazoned with the title phrase. In 2011, the artist allowed his “No Nukes Girl” image to be widely disseminated and used by protesters in mass anti-nuclear demonstrations in Japan. Eerily, Missing in Action – Girl Meets Boy (2005)—named for “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945—was literally missing, as Covid-19 delayed the travel of that particular work. In it, a young girl has heterochromia, due to an atomic bomb explosion reflected in her right eye. Deeply affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011, the prolific Nara only completed one painting that year: the grim-faced figure of In the Milky Lake/Thinking One (2011) shifts from the coyly mischievous expressions of previous works to a palpable sadness.

Another major focal point was Nara’s nuanced paint handling, often gone unnoticed due to a distinct style of delineated outlines and pared down, graphic compositions. The half-bust portrait Misty Noon (2018), for example, boasts passages of almost prismatic effect, as sheer acrylic paint is layered over and over again using variegated, sensitive brushwork. The exhibition labels compared Nara’s painting style to abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, or 19th-century French landscape painting, a seemingly unlikely point one struggled to argue against when lost amid blanketing swaths of misty, dreamy, almost sensuous color and brushwork.

A small clapboard house in one of the galleries piped in iconic tracks from the likes of Dan Penn, Joni Mitchell, and more, and what at first appeared to be a mere diversion or amusement turned out to be a surprisingly apt summary for the artist’s impulses and oeuvre. Peering through the small windows, one could spy an interior strewn with drawings, beer bottles, and souvenir trinkets from Nara’s frequent travels. The dwelling, human in scale and yet too restrictive to actually enter, is like the artist’s mind, work, and life—one can peer through and appreciate a sense of solitude and wistfulness beyond the kawaii exterior, but none can truly inhabit the interior space of individual, personal emotion.

YOSHITOMO NARA, My Drawing Room, 2008, mixed media, 301.5 × 375 × 380 cm. Copyright the artist. Photo by Mie Morimoto. Courtesy the artist.

Jennifer S. Li is ArtAsiaPacific’s Los Angeles desk editor.

Yoshitomo Nara’s retrospective is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until July 5, 2021.

To read more of ArtAsiaPacific’s articles, visit our Digital Library.

Massimo de Carlo SOTHEBY'S ARNDT SAM CHRISTIE"S David Zwirner KUKJE GALLERY Artspace