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YOSHITOMO NARA
(Japanese, B. 1959)
Looking for Treasure
signed with artist's signature; titled 'looking for a Treasure.' in English; dated '95' (on the reverse)
acrylic on canvas
119.8 x 109.6 cm. (47 1/8 x 43 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1995

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Felix Yip
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Lot Essay

Yoshitomo Nara is one of the most internationally influential contemporary artists in Japan. Although Nara is considered the representative figure of Neo Pop Art, his style is distinct from both mid-century Pop Art as well as the Neo Pop of his generation; his works emphasize personal emotion, which he has pursued via his highly personal imagery of children and animal figures since the 1990s. If the ethos of contemporary art practice is "art for art's sake", Nara's suggest a return to a notion of art for the public good, and he never succumbs to the High Art's boundaries over high and low, nor does he take a condescending view of the subcultures of his times; instead Nara breaks away from the hierarchical systems of artistic tradition in order to render his works more accessible and universally appealing. Indeed, he has enthusiastically supported the marketization and licensing of his imagery in multiple media. He believes that personal success comes from recognition by the general public instead of only by professional art critics. Heonce said, "We should rediscover art that exists in what we think of as subculture. It is strong and real anywhere you bring it because it is directly born of the everyday folks rather than of tradition, and related to their everyday life." During the 1990s, Yoshitomo Nara travel from Japan to study in Germany and, despite considerably interest in and influence of Western masters, his own art emerges from a deeply idiosyncratic and distinct style, never hiding behind the trends or the styles of mainstream Western art.

Yoshitomo Nara studied at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie in Germany between 1988 and 1994, during which he often felt being abandoned and vulnerable, like a small animal; because with his lack of knowledge in German he was unable to express himself properly. He believes that when language cannot facilitate proper communication, the transforming of inner sentiments into artistic creation becomes the only way to achieve mutual understanding and to reassure the purpose of his own existence, therefore, that the child or animal in his work is in fact his self-portrait; portraying the loneliness he felt living in a foreign land. Looking for Treasure(Lot 1053) was created in 1995, one year after Nara's graduation from the Kunstakademie, at which time he moved to a studio in Cologne to continue his development and to become a professional artist. In the painting, the treasure-hunting little girl is holding two bent paintbrushes as her tools of exploration. As such, Nara presents an elegant and innocent visual metaphor for art-making. Like hunting for treasure, whether an artistic creation makes or breaks is unforeseeable, and that it is a solitary pursuit requiring considerable will and determination. This painting gives a concrete picture of the artist's psychological activity about the changes of life.
Looking for Treasurehas a pale blue background, which gives a dream-like feeling of infinite depth, like the sky or the sea, creating a feeling of mystery, adventure and possibility. Throughout this period, Yoshitomo Nara deliberately removed background details of his works in order to make the main character the focus of the picture. At the same time, this compositional approach is reminiscent of the traditional practice of "leaving blank spaces" technique in Eastern ink paintings, and was used to highlight the main theme: the less detailed the background, the more appealing the main character. The exaggerating facial features, too, especially the upward shaped eyes, are very similar to the style of Toshusai Sharaku's Ukiyo-e Prints, and the human figures are simplified to geometric combinations of circular head, triangular body and small rectangular feet; the simple lines which place emphasis on the twisting body can be associated with traditional Japanese portraits. Nara has relatively delicate and complex brushstrokes, and there is a surprising degree of tonal variation in the girl's pink cheek and legs, the mild and implicit transition between her hair and the background reflect Nara's acute sensitivity towards colour.

Yoshitomo Nara's work cannot be understood by merely looking at the superficial meaning of the image, as the psychological status hidden behind the character's expression is a crucial element for comprehensive interpretation: a little girl should give an impression of innocence and hope, however the main character in the painting is hardly a formulaic "kawaii" product image and lacks the vivacity and sweet smile expected by the adult world; she is a complex emotional mixture embodying intrinsic nature and various feelings of being human; with her bright but slightly perverse eyes open wide, her lips tightly closed, she stares angrily at the world. Nara recalled that he learned of the degradation and suffering of the Vietnam War from television and photographs during his teenage years, at about the same time that he discovered Punk Rock, its angry chords giving vent to a generation' s alienation and resentment. This kind of wild and rebellious behaviour resonated deeply with Nara, and aroused his sympathy and anger towards the misfortune in the world; later in life, he would inject this formative memory into his artistic work: the little girl, who fights against injustice and oppression with an electric guitar, gun or even sickle, has become his spokesman to express his discontent and anger. The little girl in Nara's work embodies our past and present, while also captivating our feelings about the future. As a result, Nara's work has the power to transcend age, race, sex, space and even time; with one single glance or movement of the figure, his work strikes its viewers' heart and arouses a sense of inexplicable familiarity and resonance produced by emotion and experiences shared among all human beings.

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