Drawn on the back of envelopes and from a page of the artist’s calendar, the following three lots (198-200) by the Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara are beautiful examples of his playful yet evocative style. Educated in Japan and Germany, Nara is known for his depictions of cartoon-like children and animals, characters that often bear malevolent faces with recurring themes that range from violence, music and death, amongst others. Drawing holds an important place in Nara’s practice; dissatisfied with the teaching techniques at his art school in Japan, where he produced paintings that adhered to his teachers’ tastes, he found his own distinctive style by drawing in sketchbooks, notebooks and on scraps of wrapping paper. Untitled, 2003 (lot 199), encapsulates Nara’s response to painting in its art historical context. The inscription in Japanese presents the name of the celebrated early twentieth Japanese artist ‘Leonard Foujita’, a signature which is replicated in Foujita’s own style on the back of the canvas. This reference together with the characters’ emotive actions show Nara’s – who himself repudiates the influence of artistic predecessors on his works – light-hearted approach to art historical canons. Even though there is an aesthetic kinship with Foujita’s innocent yet supercilious children and cats painted in the 1960s, Nara wants his works to be seen independently from any preconceived standards but as expressions of his own artistic vernacular. He claims that because ‘my motifs are accessible, they are often understood only on a superficial level … My viewers become a true audience when they take what I’ve made and make it their own. That’s the moment the works gain their freedom, even from their maker’ (Y. Nara, quoted in N. Miyamura and S. Suzuki (eds.), ‘Nobody’s fool’, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Vol 1, San Francisco 2011, p. 45).
Through their rawness, these three drawings capture what Nara’s work is all about; urging the viewer to look beyond the flat surface pane, beyond the perceived simplicity of the illustration. Conceptually, he touches upon existential questions: his characters, in their child-like way, show a deepened sensitivity and are trying to figure out the meaning of life, as the young vampire in Untitled, 2005, (lot 200), astutely ponders: ‘Jinsei…?!’ / ‘Life…?!’. By using found materials, Nara adds depth to his drawings, transforming them into objects rather than two-dimensional pieces. The image is not constricted to the front of the piece of paper. Indeed, the roughness of the edges, the thickness of the envelope, the writings on the reverse but also the fact that the images seem to flow into our world, such as the clouds in Untitled (Angry Air Jet), 2004 (lot 198), contribute to making the viewer feel immersed in the work. As Kristin Chambers has written, Nara ‘invites us to return to a time when innocence and unruliness went hand in hand, when emotions were not expected to be filtered, when make-believe was not equated with lunacy, and when the world was a fantastic and terrifying kingdom to be explored, not conquered’ (K. Chambers, ‘A visit to Naraland’, in Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, exh. cat., St. Louis, Contemporary Art Museum, 2004-2005, p. 30).