Details
YOSHITOMO NARA
(Japanese, B. 1959)
Untitled
signed with artist's signature; dated '2008' (on the reverse)
acrylic on board
231.1 x 186.7 x 12.7 cm. (91 x 73 1/2 x 5 in.)
Painted in 2008
Literature
Asia Society Museum, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's Fool, New York, USA, 2010 (illustrated, p. 159).
Chronicle Books LLC, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works (Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs), San Francisco, USA, 2011 (illustrated, plate B-2008-013, p. 237).

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Lot Essay

Since the Meiji Restoration took place more than a century ago, Japan has been pursuing social innovation and modernisation. After the massive import of modern art theories and aesthetics philosophy by Enlightenment theorists, a confrontation broke out between extreme conservatives and revolutionaries in Japan. With the ceaseless effort from generations of artist in the past century, a unique system of Japanese aesthetics developed based on the notion of "Conflict, Coexistence and Harmony." A contemporary artist born in the Post- War era, Yoshitomo Nara benefited much from the quick information exchange in a modern society and the opportunities to visit abroad. Therefore, compared to Japanese reformist artists in the past, Nara has a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the motivation as well as the actual practices of the cultural coalition between the East and West. Nara's work is amiable and approachable by infusing the concepts of Western modern art with an open mind. Nara injects endless vigour into traditional Japanese art and creates a brand new artistic style of his own.

Untitled (Lot 30) presents a mature style of Nara's works. He sketches the contour of the figure's head, eyes, body, limbs and the guitar with crisp lines to create a sharp contrast in the picture. The seemingly geometrical pattern that constitutes the body alludes to pure abstraction, echoing with the modern art pioneer Paul Cézanne's concept of reconstruction of natural scenery and objects within a geometric framework. The works of famous modern sculptor Constantin Brancusi has an abstracted ovoid form (Fig. 1), like C?zanne, Brancusi also approaches his subject matters from a very introspective perspective to reduce all existential aspects, leaving the sculptural figure an abstract simplicity. By minimising the facial details, the sculpture's internal sensibility is heightened; similar practice can be noted in Untitled. Although Nara paints through a Western medium, his usage of lines leaves the traces of an Eastern artist. It is not the technique of chiaroscuro that renders the vivid imagery of the little girl; it is the variation and fluctuation of lines that brings forth the life and texture of the subject. Such practice reminds us of the unique presentation of lines in Asian classic ink paintings, which further demonstrates that Nara has established a perfect balance and connection between the East and West aesthetics.

Yoshitomo Nara is self-claimed being influenced by the style of Takeshi Motai, an illustrator of children's picture books in the 20th Century, who had published popular picture books and products. His works are therefore easily simplified as a variation of children's drawing or Japanese comics, when the audience tends to focus on the formal similarity between the two without an in-depth understanding about the origin of his style. In fact both Nara and the Japanese comic artists are profoundly influenced by the genres of traditional Japanese paintings in terms of the nation's visual heritage. Since the flourish of Zen Buddhism in Japan during the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the figures in water and ink painting were depicted in a highly stylised and exaggerated form which breaks away from the realistic depiction. For instance, Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1768), famous Zen master in the Edo period (1603-1868), drew a pair of unusually large eyes for Daruma (Fig. 2). This pair of vivid round eyes, charged with immerse energy, demonstrates the artist's deviation from candid depiction of life as well as his emphasis on the figure's emotional turbulence from within. Moreover, in the traditional painting Ukiyo-e (meaning "painting from a floating world"), traditional performers are depicted to have enlarged heads, piercing eyes and the bodily movements that express emotional tension (Fig. 3). Thus, it is very likely both Nara and the picture book author are turning their inspirations from traditional art into the visual language in modern time. While the stylistic figures in Nara's works originate from traditional Japanese paintings, the comic imagery is more inclined to seek reference from scroll paintings that prevailed in Japan from later Heian period (794-1185) to the Kamakura period.

The contemporaneity of Nara's works is further signified by his particular choice of materials in addition to his unique design. He began to deconstruct and reconstruct the pictorial plane as early as the 1990s. He cut a piece of cloth into patches of different sizes; put them together on top of another layer before starting working on it. Hence Nara creates the wonderful play of light and shadow to the monotonous background. Combination of materials by chance and the crude texture may allude to repair and bandages, which bring out the idea of the healing of a wound that goes side by side with the lonely representation of the little girl, helpless, agonised and disappointed. In recent years, Nara further broadened the expressiveness of materials. In Untitled, he paints on top of combined pieces of found construction planks. The rough surface of the wood planks is full of old nails marks and abrasions. Comparing to the soft and fragile quality of cloth, the used wood material unleashes a keen sense of masculinity. A striking architectural feel is created in the painting by the layered structure and its thickness, obscuring the boundary between painting and installation art, and at the same time it attracts the viewers' eye.

Yoshitomo Nara has been obsessed with Rock music since he was a student. He is particularly fond of the anti-establishment and free style of Punk music. Therefore, Punk is always referenced in his works, especially in this piece. Untitled is a strong demonstration of an artist's individuality in his artistic creation: the little girl holding a guitar is blended with the bold natural wooden background, manifesting Nara's rebellious, self-absorbed and uncompromising nature as a Punk music fan. Rock music is a tool for releasing emotions, and is far more influential and international than literature and language. This subject allows Nara to draw the audience closer to his painting, so as to emphasize the performer's emotional expressiveness. The furious look in the girl's eyes, the two wrinkles on her forehead together with her lopsided mouth, suggests charged emotions that contain the rage inflamed by disappointment and oppression at the verge of explosion. The work reminds the audience of the unsettling psychological fluctuation of the Japanese, caused by the surging economy after World War II, and the sudden economic downturn when the financial bubble burst in Japan, as well as the mixed feeling of fury, helplessness, anxiety and frustration developed in the younger generation in Japan as a result of the drop of birth-rate since the 1970s, which continues to impose burden on them. Childhood is a part of everyone's life, also a stage of life when we are most truthful to our heart. By combining children's innocence and the rebellious nature of Rock and Roll, Nara shows us the way to somehow mitigate the Japanese's emotional burden, giving us comfort through his art.
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