Widely recognised as one of Japan's pre-eminent artists and praised for his sweet yet spiritually independent portrayals of solitary figures and animals, Yoshitomo Nara paints with soft colours, brimming black lines and deliberate roughness echoing the spontaneity and vivacity of children's paintings. In their simplistic exterior but brimming with remarkably complex sentiments, his works are deliberately deceptive. Despite some stylistic similarities with saturated colours, animation and fantasy which the average devotee of contemporary arts and those wholly unfamiliar still succumb to the ease and comfort of Nara's works, he has frequently stated that his works are not direct reflections of these contemporary art genres. The disconnected or troubled youth of today, similar to solitary children of newly minted working class families in the post-war economic development, very much like Nara himself, derive acutely personal connections to Nara and his works, as if Nara's artworks are direct manifestations of their outlook. The accessibility and recognition of his paintings by a wide breath of audiences thus establishes Nara as part of contemporary pop culture itself. Magic Hand (Lot 5) of 1994 is an excellent demonstration of a clear expression of emotion that appeals to the audiences, drawing every person to revisit the past experiences relevant to Nara's depicted subject.
Magic Hand is at first glance rough and simplistic yet upon longer consideration is filled with discreet layers of colour and shapes reminiscent of an artist thoroughly deconstructing an image to its simplest and most truthful existence. Nara's application of highly textured, dry, severe black lines carve out the figure, and the background is at once calligraphic and animated like manga, a literary form prevalent in Japan's culture since 1945, of which Nara is an avid reader. The figure is subtly abstracted and simultaneously bound by the outlines into individually coloured fundamental geometric shapes; her dress is triangular, her legs and dollar bill are rectangular, like basic building blocks in an approach that calls to mind Paul Cezanne’s work (Fig .1). In a similar manner, Constantin Brâncusi attempted to distill his images and remodel their essence through elegant geometric simplification. In his works, the facial features of the figure are abstracted and their proportion distorted (Fig. 2). He once stated: "what they call abstract is what is most realistic. What is real is not the appearance, but the idea, the essence of things." The exaggerated facial features of the figure, the upturned eyes in particular, recall the facial features of figures depicted in Ukiyo-e prints during the Edo era (Fig. 3). Through deforming, exaggerating, simplifying and abstracting objective images in their works, these artists, like Nara, invariably manifested their inner self.
Nara re-creates a familiar moment in time in the wondrous Magic Hand, a young girl picks up the dubious 10,000 dollar bill with an extended artificial arm. Clothed in a red dress with three gold buttons, her underwear peeks through innocently, giving away her young age and naivete. Yet fearlessly playful and knowingly breaking the rules, she is not preen, her dress splattered in black, red and yellow paint as if she has been scavenging the grounds for souvenirs. Standing with her bowed head, her hair neatly parted and tucked behind her ears, her legs clasp tightly in nervousness as she concentrates on her task at hand. Pleased with her success, her small lips curve into a smile. The audience cannot help but smile at the seemingly mundane and trite task, lauding her in her success while amused at the simple pleasures children find. Picking up a stranger's lost bill conveys a contemplative skepticism, the excitement in treasure hunting clearly worth more to the girl than the monetary value of the cash. She is a reflection of the moral lesson taught to us all: refrain from taking what is not ours, even though pocketing it brings promises of new toys and sweets. This mental struggle is beautifully illustrated in the use of a gadget and not her bare hands as though it was just a bit poisonous, a forbidden and tasty fruit.
Nara's upbringing tinged with animation, pop culture and interest in childhood experiences, has invariably shaped the unique stylistic qualities in his works in the very same way as the pioneers of modern artistic expression of the 20th century. The deliberate lack of technical skills brought forth from his studies is misleading as Magic Hand also reveals a skillfully balanced composition seen in the parallel curvature of the girl's head and the green apparatus and the harmonized compilation of subtle shapes. His limited and overlapping palette also aids in the cohesiveness of the composition and becomes a guide for the viewer's eye, articulating depth in a unique and effective manner. Orange, greens and reds are not only seen in its main applied section but also scattered in the legs, dress and as glowing sparks of light in the dark space, drawing the viewer methodically further into the depths of the protagonist's world and filling it with memories of our own.
Vibrant and visually captivating, Magic Hand demonstrates a constant exploration of human emotions, reawakening sentiments and experiences from our past. There is a harmony of angst, happiness and the complexity of human psychology, packaged in Nara’s sweet integration of visual associations universally prevalent to the contemporary era. Nara's iconic young subjects effectively represent the very youth of each individual. His ability to appeal to the masses, his embrace of common scenarios and the easily recognisable figures powerfully indicate Nara's prowess as a communicative artist and a leading contemporary figure of the 21st century.