Nara works alone in his studio, usually late at night, with punk rock screaming from speakers. He chain-smokes as he concentrates on channeling all of his past ghosts and present emotions into the deceptively simply face of his current subject. Each painting – each figure – is typically executed in the span of one night, capturing both a range of emotion and a specific mood.
—K. Chambers, Nothing Ever Happens, Cleveland, 2003, p. 26
An edgy fusion of Japanese painter Yoshitomo Nara’s iconic young rebels and boundary-pushing text, Rock You audaciously proclaims the power that comes with marching to your own beat in the face of a culture of conformity. One of the first contemporary global art sensations from Japan, Nara seamlessly merges Western and Eastern sensibilities into the same pictorial space, using motifs such as impish children and bold text to create his own iconic universal language. Rock You (2010) embodies these motifs and Nara’s pursuit of an art informed by a conglomeration of different sources, from rock and punk music to twentieth-century children’s books, from traditional Japanese figurative works to Italian Renaissance painters Giotto and Piero della Francesca. Much of the artist’s oeuvre depicts children in various emotional states and plays with themes of isolation, rebellion and spirituality. Sometimes Nara’s children are contemplative, quiet and isolated; other times, including in the present lot, they are rebellious, willful and mischievous. The cheeky Rock You weaves Nara’s distinctive humor and unconventional subject to promote unfettered freedom of the imagination through the artist’s fresh sensibilities.
In Rock You, a rebellious small girl with a disproportionately large head plays a guitar while staring out towards the viewer from a circular void. Emblematic of Nara’s unmistakable style, she is simplistically rendered with black outlines and minimal background details. She wears a shapeless orange dress, and her head is round and bean-shaped: a visual reference to the renowned sculptures of Constantin Brancu?i. The figure’s brown hair is cut bluntly above where her eyebrows should be and extends slightly past her ears before wrapping around her head in the ever-fashionable bowl cut. Oversized orange glasses cover her eyes, giving a heightened sense of defiance to the scene. A simple line with two small fangs represents her mouth and reinforces the mischievous element so prevalent throughout the artist’s oeuvre. In one hand she tightly grips a bright green guitar while energetically strumming with the other. She stands with her legs in a power stance on top of a small dark patch, which separates her from the otherwise unadorned wood panel support, encased in an artist-constructed sky blue frame, as a nod to Nara’s early interest in varied surfaces, incorporating the unique texture into the composition itself.
Behind the child are the words “I will rock you” plastered within the confines of a cartoon speech bubble. The phrase is written in a bold red type, drawing further attention to the impassioned emotion behind it. The figure boldly taunts her viewer that “she will rock you” while fervently playing her guitar, in a play on the 1977 Queen hit “We Will Rock You”, substituting collective angst for individual empowerment. Displayed prominently in the center of the circle, the scale of the text dwarfs the figure, looming over her silent jam. The format of this writing draws visual allusions to both Western comics and to the textual additions in Japanese ukiyo-e prints from the Edo Period, which often featured the artist or studio name in a blank space on the canvas with an accompanying red seal to identify the author of the print. In further homage to the fusion of East and West in the art historical canon, Nara situates his rockstar in a medallion composition, likening his child icon to the saints and apostles scattered throughout European cathedrals.
Along with his contemporary Takashi Murakami, Nara finds inspiration in traditional Japanese figurative works while simultaneously diverging from them. Together, Nara and Murakami provoked new developments in the Japanese Pop Art movement. While Murakami mined the depths of anime, manga, and other popular Japanese media, Nara looked to different influences in order to develop his personal style. Though many have drawn parallels between Nara’s characters and Japanese Pop, the artist maintains, “Honestly, I have been more influenced by children’s books… I don’t dislike manga, but I’m not interested in it, and I don’t watch animé at all” (Y. Nara, quoted in M. Chiu, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., New York, Asia Society, 2010, pp. 174-175). Instead, the artist credits his childhood as the greatest impact on his artistic production. Having grown up in a post-war Japan inundated with Western influence, Nara gravitated toward the counter-cultural, defiant strains of rock and punk music, puncturing his oeuvre with references to his interest in the genre. By including elements from both the Western and Eastern worlds, Nara combines these dichotomous sensibilities into a thought-provoking and deeply personal style.
Another key influence for Rock You was Nara’s introduction to rock and roll. The artist explained that, “Music certainly played a major role in the formation of me as an individual. The influence of music on me is far more significant than that of manga and other things that people talk about” (Y. Nara, quoted in M. Chiu, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., New York, Asia Society, 2010, p. 181). As a teenager, the artist was introduced to mainstream rock and roll, as well as songs from independent labels. Recalling the first time he heard a song by the Ramones, Nara said, “One such night, one song that played from the radio blew my mind… My whole precocious self was blown away! That song lit a fire in my raw teenage emotion. It was the Ramones! And then the Sex Pistols, and The Clash, and Bob Marley… They gave me an answer to how I’d live my life from then on” (Y. Nara, quoted in M. Chiu, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, exh. cat., New York, Asia Society, 2010, p. 258). This revelation from his youth certainly impacted both the formal and thematic qualities of the present lot and music still remains an important aspect of the artist’s life.
The youthful jubilance and rebellious attitude evoked in Nara’s adolescence by rock and roll still permeates his artistic production and takes center stage in Rock You. One can imagine Nara smoking in his studio late at night, blaring punk rock music and crafting this little girl unapologetically shredding her guitar and inviting the viewer to head-bang along. By combining his personal experiences and variety of inspirations into one work, Nara successfully brings numerous representational ideologies into the current era while promoting introspective freedom for himself and his viewers.