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Mathematical Cliché

Mathematical Cliché
signed in Japanese; titled and dated twice ‘Mathematical cliche [sic] 01 27.Jun ‘01’ (on the reverse)
acrylic on cotton mounted on shaped fiber-reinforced plastic
70 7/8 x 111 7/8 x 10 ¼ in. (180 x 284 x 26 cm.)
Executed in 2001.
Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Birth and Present: A Studio Portrait of Yoshitomo Nara, Berkeley, 2003, pp. 63 and 88 (illustrated).
N. Miyamura and S. Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, p. 177, pl. P-2001-017 (illustrated).
Yokohama Museum of Art; Ashiya City Museum of Art & History; Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art; Hokkaido Asahikawa Museum of Art and Hirosaki, Yoshii Brick Brewhouse, I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME: Nara Yoshitomo, August 2001-September 2002, p. 26, no. 2 (illustrated).

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Lot essay

In Yoshitomo Nara’s Mathematical Cliché, a lone anthropomorphic figure with human features, cat-like ears and sleek tail ponders a perspective-shattering geometrical atmosphere. The work, which with its dual curvilinear construction is the only double-dish painting ever to be produced by the Japanese artist, serves as an exceptional example of Nara’s move away from the rectangular supports he typically adopted during the 1990s and towards a circular format reminiscent of a Renaissance tondo. With this transition, Nara forges a dialogue between the gentle smoothness of the work’s physical perimeter and the flat, angular geometry depicted upon the surface of its picture plane—in this instance a scattering of supplanted rectilinear forms punctuating the two roundels and splicing the pale blue-green background, the burnished umber protagonist, and the enigmatic white box at the bottom of the composition.

Nara’s characters—a roll call that includes children, dogs, cats and fantastical creatures stylistically influenced by the bygone ukiyo-e genre—are iconic within the canon of contemporary art; the artist is known for depicting young children (especially girls) with surly expressions, brandishing knives or crucifixes, smoking cigarettes or morphing into vampires. These sometimes-menacing creations allude to a counter-cultural spirit of rebellion encapsulated by the punk movement in the Western world during the 1970s, which Nara was captivated by, and to the disillusionment with a hyper-consumerism that Nara and many other artists of the Superflat movement felt was engulfing Japan. In Mathematical Cliché, the figure is noticeably more subdued, innocent and pensive, embodying kawaii (a type of cuteness synonymous with Japanese culture), and in an unusual move for Nara the protagonist is shifted to the side of the composition, as though to observe the rhythm of enveloping shapes. The character’s gaze is inquisitive, curious, perhaps a little sceptical, pondering the mysteries of a secret geometry or an atmospheric distortion anchored by the large mysterious rectangle at the bottom of the composition.

Like the musical sounds heard by Nara as a child and teenager, the distribution of shapes dancing around the picture plane in Mathematical Cliché…become the antidote to loneliness and isolation.”

The tranquil melancholia captured in the figure’s physiognomy resonates with the sense of alienation and alterity experienced by Nara as a child in Japan, where during the postwar economic boom a cultural dislocation was triggered by the saturation of Western cultural components such as Disney animation, comic books and Western rock music. Nara spent his adolescent years against this cultural backdrop in the city of Hirosaki, a mostly rural environment centered around a castle; the artist has noted that “I was lonely, and music and animals were a comfort. I could communicate better with animals, without words, than communicating verbally with humans” (Y. Nara, quoted in ‘Interview: Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’, Financial Times, 10 October 2014, via https://www.ft.com/ [accessed 11 April 2021]). Listening to an American military radio station, the artist’s early exposure to Western folk music and punk rock became a formative solace; he would later go on to create album covers for American and Japanese bands such as R.E.M., Bloodthirsty Butchers and Shonen Knife. As envisioned in the relationship between the figure and their surroundings in Mathematical Cliché, Nara’s solitude was negated by his sense of curiosity and his ensuing discoveries. Like the musical sounds heard by Nara as a child and teenager, the distribution of shapes dancing around the picture plane in Mathematical Cliché, and the white box at its bottom, become the antidote to loneliness and isolation.

While Nara became infatuated with (and inspired by) American music, his approach towards perspective was distinctly and refreshingly non-Western. Nara joined the Superflat movement around 2001, the year of Mathematical Cliché’s creation, and sided with the group’s disruption of one-point perspective. Takashi Murakami, Superflat’s founder, conveyed that “compared to the classical technique of representation using “one-point” perspective, my superflat [sic] idea does not really correspond to traditional Western perspective, but to the introduction of a ‘multiplicity of points’” (T. Murakami, quoted in Murakami: Kaikai Kiki, exh. cat., Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain, Paris, and Serpentine Gallery, London, 2002, unpaged). In Mathematical Cliché, conventional perspective has been supplanted by this ‘multiplicity of points,’ demonstrated by the proliferation of rectangular forms which also hollow out the figurative elements, by the rounded shape of the cotton support and the visible vertical line intersecting its center, and by the ambiguous and unfocused gaze of the figure, who is decentralized and energizes the composition with an alluring lilt. Steeped in an almost dreamlike reverie, and with the work serving as an engrossing example of Nara’s tantalizing fusion of figuration and abstraction, a radical perspectival approach transfigures Mathematical Cliché into an enchanting meditation on the transformative power of inquisitiveness and the bliss of solitude.

Lot Essay Header Image: Present lot illustrated (detail).

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