Punch Me Harder

Punch Me Harder
titled ‘Punch me harder’, artist’s signature and dated ‘2000’ (lower edge)
acrylic and coloured pencil on paper, mounted on canvas
215.9 x 195.6 cm. (85 x 77 in.)
Executed in 2000
Private Collection, Asia
Bonitas-Bauer, Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Würzburg, Germany, 2002 (illustrated, p. 97).
Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 2 -Works on Paper, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 (illustrated, plate D-2000-003, p. 149).

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Lot Essay

After living in Germany for twelve years, Yoshitomo Nara returned to Japan in 2000. Painted the year of his return, Punch Me Harder (Lot 47) is executed a neo-expressionist style where the expression of self is the prime objective. The use of colour and the brushwork treatment are markedly more nuanced and controlled. Concise lines neatly delineate the child’s features. Translucent hues are meticulously layered in order to give the colours a rich translucency and depth. It is apparent that in terms of composition and character modelling, Yoshitomo Nara is profoundly influenced by traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e paintings (fig. 1). However, in Ukiyo-e paintings, the female subjects always avert their gazes from the viewers. In this regard, Nara’s figures diverge from traditional painting, as his young subjects always fearlessly gaze back at the viewers, piercing the picture plane with their green eyes. The lustre on the little girl’s shirt collar and her hair are highlighted with red and green coloured pencil, and these colours are also echoed in her green eyes and red lips. By using coloured pencil, Nara was able to preserve the sketch quality of the mark-making process - it is improvisational and intimate. The background treatment adheres to Nara’s signature process - by leaving it largely empty, the figure seems to emerge from the picture plane. The resulting tone is exceptionally somber. Recalling the years he studied abroad in Germany, he once said, “During that time, the weather was always gloomy. I felt like I existed in a vacuum that was devoid of people. I was detached from everything around me. I was transported back to my childhood whenever I felt that way”.

The child in the work sports a classic bowlcut bob hair, and she wears a shirt with a Peter Pan collar. This type of collar was made popular in the early 20th century when actress Maud Adams played the leading role in the 1905 Broadway production of Peter Pan (fig. 2). Peter Pan can fly, and he never grows up. Not only is it a children story, it also represents a beautiful memory that adults secretly yearn to return to. The Peter Pan collar became a standard feature in children’s clothing in 1920s, persisting until today. Compared to Peter Pan, whose appearance would never change despite how much he aged on the inside, Nara’s child reveal a sense of loneliness and rebellion that does not match her age nor her appearance.

The children that Nara depicts are not individuals, but are instead the likeness of an ordinary child. On the other hand, Andy Warhol, an artist who also had a unique understanding of portraiture, exclusively painted celebrities as subjects. For example, he featured Chairman Mao one of his most iconic series of paintings (fig. 3). The gaudy colours and brash brushwork strip away the sense of authority that the original image is supposed to instill in the public. The portrait becomes a parody and a popular image that is filled with irony. When Nara infuses the most ordinary children with a sense of animosity, rebellion, and defiance, he also subverts the viewers’ preconceived notion of children being innocent.

Standing in front of this work, it is hard to not be overwhelmed by its sheer size. The child in the painting appears to be much larger than a child in real life. In turn, this makes the adult viewer feels particularly small. One must look up to clearly see the facial expression of the figure in the painting, and the positions of grown-up and child are thus switched. This treatment visually empowers the piece with a certain sense of impact and hostility. However, this is not all that Nara was trying to achieve. As early as 1951, Mark Rothko stated that painting large-scale works had a personal significance to him, “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command”. Because one cannot command the work in its entirety, Punch Me Harder closes the psychological distance between the subject and the viewers. Visually, because the viewers are completely possessed by the picture, they can intimately feel it resonating with them.

When Nara was asked about the identity of his subjects, whether he was painting himself or a projection of himself as a child, he replied, “I was not deliberately painting any particular girl. Through painting representational features such as eyes, noses, and mouths, I wanted to express something deeper. This deeper thing cannot be described with language. Yet, people will understand.” The child in Punch Me Harder is a mirror. They reflect the mental state of the artist when he painted the work, and they also reflect the emotions of the viewer who sees the painting. These feelings are an accumulation of experiences and sentimental encounters from the past. Nara summed up these reactions, “It matters not what kind of person you are, there will always be moments of courage and moments of vulnerability”. Strength and weakness, duplicity and naivety, Nara takes these different aspects of human nature and combines them in the same picture. He gives the viewers spiritual solace and the courage to live authentically.

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