Yoshitomo Nara’s The Little Star Dweller, a luminous painting of a child with glittering stars about her crown, grapples with a number of paradoxes: the work is readily accessible yet enigmatic, sweet yet menacing and introspective yet superficial. The painting tellingly shares a title with this leading Japanese artist’s 2004 autobiography, which extensively covers his childhood in a rural village in northern Japan. The inner voyage of the child depicted may well be Nara’s own, though he leaves space for the viewer to insert him or herself into the picture.
Nara’s strange, childlike figures combine personal experience with the rigorous formal artist training that he received in Japan and at the prestigious Künstakademie in Dusseldorf, where he was taught by Neo-Expressionist painter A.R. Penck. Nara’s seemingly childlike art may hold the insouciant charm of children’s book illustrations, yet belie a painfully lonely childhood, reference Japanese visual traditions and Western modernism, and evoke Manga imagery and Renaissance paintings.
The child is neither particularly male nor female, in keeping with Nara’s believe that every person contains masculine and feminine elements. The figure’s ambiguity on many levels allows for an empathic viewer to slip into the role of the child. Leveraging visual artifice to get at deeply existential truths, Nara embraces the manner in which the strangeness of childhood never truly leaves us.
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