Friday, January 13, 2012

The kids are not alright

Posted By on Fri, Jan 13, 2012 at 2:46 PM

Present, 1994
  • Present, 1994
Pictures of sad children and fluffy poodles with big, soft, imploring eyes aren't usually classified as art, but one of the major projects of the 20th century was to reevaluate the things that had been kept from the museums' and gallery's hallowed spaces—from urinals to Brillo boxes and comic books—and recontextualize them as fitting subjects for artistic exploration. Something of this spirit—and much more—runs through the work of Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara whose weirdly haunting depictions of big-eyed children and puppy dogs have been collected in an overwhelmingly thorough new catalogue of complete works from Chronicle Books.

Yoshitomo Nara, now in his early 50s, first came to the world's attention in the 1990s with his pop-art and manga-influenced work. The Chronicle catalogue begins in the late 1980s with his strong and boisterous primitive paintings. His real subject matter emerges slowly: children begin to appear, often with big eyes, knives, saws, and expressions that range from bored to hateful, mischievous to malevolent. Once he finds his subject, one can see him quickly zero in on it and simplify. Backgrounds fall away, lines become simpler, and the eyes take centerstage. The marshmallow head, the angry expression, the pastel colors, it's a vision he pursues across many years.

Amuro Girl, 1997
  • Amuro Girl, 1997
A broad range of mediums are represented, and Nara has facility in many—though not all—of them. The fiberglass of his sculptures—as smooth and unblemished as the latest and greatest toy fresh from the factory—is a perfect fit for his subject matter and pop-style, and it's especially resonant in installations: children in pajamas sleep-walk on gallery floors, toddlers climb ladders as if to escape the exhibition, and cartoon dogs sink halfway into walls. Drawings on paper—and there are a lot of them—lack some of the interplay between the immediate and the ineffable which is the currency of the paintings. Perhaps it's his frequent use of text within the drawings: Quotes and phrases alongside the images state the unobvious, which is always better left unsaid. It's interesting to see how Nara photographs real dogs and real children at play, but these succeed mostly in the context of his other work: they don't hold much interest as their own independent pieces. Nara even seems to seek some version of the child in rough, unpainted clay in his recent ceramic works, though it's most successfully found in his paintings.

Personal observations and responses by Japanese writers and artists Banana Yoshimoto, Hiroshi Sugito, and Takashi Murakami give a sense of the artist's persona, which, though well-known in Japan, may not be as familiar in the US. The critical essay by Midori Matsui, despite its overly fussy category-parsing title and framework “Yoshitomo as a Great “Minor” Artist,” still explores some compelling territory, especially when the critic dives into Japanese history and Nara's biography.

Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works is a big, finely made publication. It comes in two volumes with a heavy cardboard slipcase that slides into a nifty totebag printed with a Nara silkscreen (you can carry it around with you and never be far from the scary little children). It all seems designed to make Nara-fans salivate, and the whole thing should give them their fix of the popular artist.

Deceptively simple, Nara's work thrives on juxtapositions: the horrific and the cute, the innocent and the cynical, the rebellious and the passive. As Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto writes in the introduction: “We can always glimpse cruelty within the transparent world of beauty. And there is the snow; always snow, falling softly and quietly to cover the cruelty.”

It's put another way in an installation from 2001 in which Nara arranges a collection of big-eyed children and nostalgia-inducing stuffed animals, all facing the viewer, all pressed together into letters that spell out the words: “I don't mind if you forget me.” He may say he doesn't mind, but he'll also make sure you never do.

Pyromaniac Day, 1999
  • Pyromaniac Day, 1999

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