Sunday, April 10, 2005

Yoshitomo Nara's "Sheep from Your Dream" (1997) is a creation of fiberglass, resin, wood, lacquer and cotton from the Lindemann Collection in Miami Beach.

Beyond cute

Yoshitomo Nara’s work teeters
between adorable and creepy

We're all familiar with the giggling, overwrought type of the Japanese fan, whose single-minded obsession attaches to a megastar such as Michael Jackson or creates one through mass devotion. But Yoshitomo Nara -- who enjoys a legion of secret admirers even in Honolulu -- is no rock star or movie idol. He's an artist -- and a reclusive, unassuming one at that.

'Nothing Ever Happens'

An exhibition by Yoshitomo Nara:

On view: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays through May 29

Place: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive

Admission: $5 general; $3 for seniors and students; children free

Call: 526-1322

Free talks

Both events will be held at 7 p.m. at the University of Hawaii-Manoa Art Auditorium. Call 526-1322.

Tuesday: University of Hawaii professor Christine Yano speaks on "Yoshitomo Nara, Hello Kitty and Other Japanese Pop Merchandising Phenomena."

April 26: Columbia University professor Marilyn Ivy speaks on "Superflat Children."

It seems people either "get" Nara's work or they don't. The uninitiated quickly associate the traveling exhibit currently at the Contemporary Museum, "Nothing Ever Happens," with the decades-long interest in manga and anime, or 'zines and graffiti in the United States.

Curators and art critics initially lumped him with colleague Takashi Murakami as an exemplar of Tokyo Pop, pointing to its breakdown of high/low art distinctions, the mingling of "street" with gallery and the critique of commodity culture, all of which echo the American Pop movement of the 1960s and '70s.

It's true that Nara groupies in Japan are mostly young, just as Andy Warhol's once were. But Nara devotees worldwide cut a wide swath. The ones I've come across in Honolulu are, in fact, mostly middle-age women who find it hard to say exactly what draws them to Nara's flat, cartoonish children and dogs -- except that it's not the usual Japanese weakness for cuteness, or "kawaii." Nara's scowling children, with their reptilian, wide-set eyes and fondness for knives, cigarettes or buzzing chain saws, are definitely not kawaii.

They are more "kowai" -- scary. Creepy, we would say. But it's precisely the disquieting archetype of the satanic child, elevated to the status of classical portraiture, that seems to exert an immediate magnetism or not, depending on your intimacy with your own satanic inner child.

Nara insists that his inspiration is not so much popular culture, or the color-block lineage that critics are quick to draw from ukiyo-e to manga, as a return to the world he inhabited as a latchkey child in the boondocks of northern Japan. He remembers himself always alone, drawing or wandering the fields to talk with his companions -- the dogs, cats and birds, similarly captive and mutely expressive -- or soaking up the messages of movies and music of the 1960s and '70s.

When he went off to art school in Dčsseldorf, Germany, the natural introvert thrust into an alien culture reverted to that world as a source of imagination. He has remained there ever since.

Nara creates images that embody an ideal of simplicity, innocence and purity that is classically Japanese.

MOP-HAIRED AND LANKY at age 46, Nara -- who spoke through an interpreter at the University of Hawaii last month -- expresses a boyish sincerity and genuineness, an easy humor that is hard to translate except to say that it embodies an ideal of simplicity, innocence and purity that is classically Japanese.

Nara is Zen. There is no pretense in him, none of the cynical distancing you see in American artist Jeff Koons, whose work similarly exalts childhood icons. Nara's retreat to childhood, with its frustrations and intensity of feeling, permeates not only his paintings, but also his speech, writing and demeanor. To his young Japanese fans especially, this seamless merging of mask and persona makes a statement in itself, taking a poetic stance against the phony, plastic world in the only language it knows, in a performance that is not one.

It is all part of his art.

"I will endeavor to practice my art to the utmost of my powers," he writes in the catalog to this exhibition, which is in Honolulu on the last stop of a five-city tour. "This practice is not for the sake of others, but to reveal to myself, as faithfully as possible, what it means to be alive today."

Nara traces the spirit of his work to the punk rock he blasts in his studio. Deceptively simple and angry to outsiders, punk, to its devotees more importantly honors the fragile beauty of pure feeling in a world that is corrupted and false -- an intensity that some of us remember as being so very painful in youth.

"Light My Fire" (2001) is crafted of acrylic, fabric and wood.

While the world of the young, especially children, has characterized Japan's cultural output since World War II, the experience has been aestheticized and rendered palatable for adults, most notoriously as kawaii. Those who grew up in the 1960s remember the initial wonder of manga, the enormous depth of feeling expressed in those dewy eyes, the pathos of the little bodies and giant heads that has since been codified, commercialized and emotionally flattened by familiarity.

Through his pristine lines and colors, Nara recaptures some of that raw emotion. His figures might look as telegraphic as comics, but if you examine them closely -- the nose two perfectly mirrored watermelon seeds, the mouth a single, multicolored line whose variation is studied and nuanced like the lines of the bangs or proportions of each pupil or teardrop -- it becomes clear that Nara is, all protest aside, part of a Japanese artistic heritage that has been recast as thoroughly contemporary. In him the notion of Pop is transformed from a Western export to an Eastern one.

Rigorously trained at a European art academy, Nara is quick to deflect any such critical impulses to locate his art.

"I would be happy if the world could respond to my work in a way that transcends mere art history or criticism," he writes in the exhibition catalog. "But there are always those people who would rather deceive."

"Shaka Nara" is a mixed-media installation by Ryan Higa, Ryuta Nakajima, Koi Ozu, Cade Roster, David Tanji, Jason Teraoka and Yoshitomo Nara. Nara creates such spaces to break the sterility of gallery environments.

WHEN THE ARTIST talks about his work, it is more in the mode of pointing than analyzing. Asked at UH how he navigates between attention to formal rigor and spontaneity, Nara clearly struggled to explain it on his own terms. Whether it's an Italian oil painting or a popular film, he said, the qualities that matter to him are the same: a certain balance, a quality of expression. It's hard to explain, he said, because other people might see these things in a different way.

Opening a drawing program on the projected screen, he doodled some tea kettles. He once saw some kids drawing in school, he said, and one kid drew a skillful illustration of what he saw. Another kid could barely draw, but his tea kettle showed how the lid opened and where the hole connected to the water inside -- things you wouldn't see from the outside. It was this second drawing, Nara said, that seemed to him far more real.

"When I look at things, I probably see them more in that way," he said in Japanese.

A glass looks to him the same as a plate, he continued doodling, because if you melted the one, it would become the other. If you put holes in them, they would be the same as a coffee cup. In the same way, he said, film, literature and music could be transformed from one to the other if they were made of clay -- and in this sense his paintings are the same as classical oils.

His work, in other words, invites an emotional and not an intellectual response.

It is young fans who understand him best, Nara says -- which is why he turned to merchandising T-shirts, books and posters. The catalog for "Nothing Ever Happens" is peppered with tributes from fellow artists who share his discomfort with the critical apparatus while simultaneously reaching a wide audience of the young and sincere through its machinery: punk rocker Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day, author Dave Eggers, Debbie Harry of Blondie and Leonard Nimoy, a poet after Nara's own soul who reportedly traded some original "Mr. Spock" ears for a painting.

"Child, alone, take care," begins Nimoy's verse, reproduced prominently in the catalog.

"Trust no one ... over 5 ... Your world is clear ... You see and hear ... the truth."

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