Yoshitomo Nara’s The Little Star Dweller, a luminous painting of a child with glittering stars about their crown, has the surreality of a childhood dream. The painting, featured in the Hirosaki incarnation of Nara’s acclaimed large-scale traveling 2006 solo show, Yoshitomo Nara + graf, tellingly shares a title with this leading Japanese artist’s 2004 autobiography, which extensively covers his youth in a rural village in Northern Japan. The inner voyage of the peculiar child depicted may well be Nara’s own, though he generously leaves space for the viewer to insert him or herself into the picture. Art critic and scholar Midori Matsui has remarked that Nara’s distinctive oeuvre “gives priority to the emotional truth of the dream-vision” (M. Matsui, “Art for Myself and Others: Yoshitomo Nara’s Popular Imagination,” Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., M. Chui and M. Tezuka (eds.), Asia Society Museum, 2010, p. 13). The artist’s extraordinary, surreal approach to the figurative is nothing short of iconic. His highly stylized, bobble-headed youths, like the star dweller, leverage visual artifice to get at deeply existential truths, grappling with the manner in which the strangeness of childhood—with its “unresolved guilts [and] hazy visual recollections”—never truly leaves us (M. Matsui in conversation with Yoshitomo Nara, Index Magazine, 2001, n.p.). With a dark and enigmatic tranquility, The Little Star Dweller excavates memory and the unconscious to fantastical effect.
In The Little Star Dweller, a delicately painted, large-headed child with closed eyes dominates the frame in the style of frontal Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. The youth’s flattened, placid visage is pearly and nearly translucent, echoing the use of color by two artists admired by Nara, Giotto and Pierro della Francesca. Against a celestial backdrop, stars to which glitter has been carefully applied ring the isolated child, like fireflies. One of Nara’s trademark comic-book and Renaissance-painting-informed figures, this star dweller has an exaggerated head and large eyes that visually caricature youth and youth’s innocence. The child is neither particularly male nor female, in keeping with Nara’s belief that every person contains masculine and feminine elements (and that he personally derived a feminine sensibility from his sister, who died a year before he was born and after whom he was named). The figure’s visual ambiguity and softness court a level of slippage, and thus allows an empathic viewer’s response as he or she steps into the role of the child.
In its journey into the self, the character’s innocent porcelain face, framed by a halo of dappled nutmeg hair, is disquietingly still. Soft, sweet, and cute at the surface, Nara’s work contains darker, somewhat subversive elements. The artist is inspired folk and rock music from the 1960s and 70s, and Western punk (he has made album art for punk bands) — his figures often appear irritated or angry, a knife occasionally in their diminutive grasps. The inward-looking tranquility that saturates The Little Star Dweller is neither unadulterated nor benign. Michael Darling, the Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, has noted that tranquility in Nara’s work can at its root “intimate the ultimate dissociation from the world: death.” Darling continues, “Thankfully, the artist lets us have it both ways, neither dragging viewers down with melodramatic doom and gloom, nor presenting a scenario of worry-free beauty and pleasure. Nara tantalizes our senses and imaginations, while at the same time honing our understanding of the complexities of the contemporary condition” (M. Darling, “Yoshitomo Nara,” Frieze, Issue 37, November-December 1997, n.p.).
That Nara’s autobiography and the present painting share a title, The Little Star Dweller, points to the personal content of the work. Nara has repeatedly cited the powerful influence of his childhood upon his artwork. A sensitive youth, the artist grew up relatively isolated in Hirosaki, a small, rural village in the northernmost province in Japan. With two parents who worked long hours, and brothers who were far older, he was often left to his own devices. To pass the time, he would draw and paint, read ehon (picture books) and Japanese manga, watch animated Walt Disney films, and play with animals in the open fields around his house. He recalls being profoundly lonely. These deeply felt childhood experiences and the desire to reclaim childhood innocence have followed Nara into adulthood, manifesting in his unusual approach to figuration. His strange childlike figures combine personal experience with the rigorous formal artistic training that he received in Japan and at the prestigious Künstakademie in Dusseldorf, where he was taught by Neo-Expressionist painter A.R. Penck.
The Little Star Dweller is a bundle of intriguing paradoxes: readily accessible yet enigmatic, sweet yet menacing, and introspective yet superficial. “Rather than merely offering the work for the viewers to see face-on, I want to trigger their imaginations,” Nara has said of his ethos. “This way, each individual can see my work with his or her own unique, imaginative mind…Maybe an exhibition is not where I present my achievement but an experimental place where visitors find an opportunity to see themselves reflected as though my work were a mirror or a window” (Y. Nara in conversation with M. Chin, “A Conversation With The Artist,” M. Matsui, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., M. Chui and M. Tezuka (eds.), Asia Society Museum, 2010, p. 179).