In Yoshitomo Nara’s Dead of Night (2004), a starry-eyed little girl stares out from a circular void. Submerged in a pool of rich burgundy paint, she fixes the viewer with a piercing glare, exuding defiance and insouciance in equal measure. Composed from patchwork squares of canvas on fibre reinforced plastic, the work belongs to the series of iconic concave discs that Nara began in 2001, shortly after returning to his native Japan from twelve years in Germany. It was during this period that the artist took his place on the international stage, buoyed by the success of his two-year touring exhibition that travelled to museums across America between 2003 and 2005. Due to be the subject of a major retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in April 2020, Nara’s work captures a unique spirit of occult rebellion and childlike imagination, embodied by the small feisty figure who has come to be synonymous with his oeuvre. Drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as rock album covers, Giotto, Walt Disney animations and traditional Japanese woodblock prints, his eclectic pictorial language reflects both Eastern and Western sensibilities. Resembling Renaissance tondo paintings and vinyl artwork in equal measure, the present work relates closely to Nara’s Shallow Puddle series of the same period, whose protagonists appear to lurk within pools of water. Here, like a vision from a nightmare, his subject lies in wait, fiercely guarding her territory against the outside world.
Though critics have drawn parallels between Nara’s characters and Japanese manga, the artist has repeatedly distanced himself from such comparisons. Instead, he credits his childhood for much of his aesthetic outlook: a period of relative isolation, in which he was exposed to a stream of disparate influences. Born in 1959, Nara grew up as a ‘latchkey kid’ in rural post-war Japan, and spent a great deal of time in the company of his own imagination. Under U.S. occupation, the country had experienced an influx of Western culture, including Warner Brothers cartoons, punk music, American comic books and European fairy tales. It was a time of global discovery and change; ‘in my lonely room, I would twist the radio dial to the American military base station and out blasted rock and roll music’, he recalls. ‘One of history’s first man-made satellites revolved around me up in the night sky. There I was, in touch with the stars and the radio waves’ (Y. Nara, ‘Nobody’s Fool’, in N. Miyamura and S. Suzuki (eds.), Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Vol. 1., San Francisco 2011, p. 42). In his writings, Nara alludes to his artistic journey as an act of space travel – a metaphor, perhaps, for feelings of cultural alienation. References to nighttime and darkness recur throughout his practice, notably in the present work’s title, conjuring a sense of mystery, enigma and being alone with one’s thoughts. His willful, independent young subjects seek to recapture the free-wheeling imagination that defined his lonely childhood: they are avatars of fantasy, reverie and limitless creative freedom.
Much like the Superflat movement propagated by artists such as Takashi Murakami in the early 2000s, Nara’s work claims a lineage in traditional Japanese art forms. His compositions invite comparison with Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock prints, as well as Okame theatrical masks. Where Superflat embraced the smooth surfaces of commercial imagery, however, Nara’s works insist upon their hand-made quality, each typically created over a single night to a soundtrack of blaring music. Though superficially ‘cute’ (or kawaii), his creations also possess a supernatural, spiritual dimension which the artist has linked to Shinto beliefs in animism – the notion that all objects are fundamentally alive. ‘I want people to feel the commotion beneath the surface of my pictures’, he has explained (Y. Nara, quoted in M. Matsui, ‘An interview with Yoshitomo Nara,’ Index, February-March 2001, p. 63). Elsewhere, Nara has related such properties to his fascination with Renaissance art, which he encountered while living in Europe. ‘I’ve learned a lot from Renaissance fresco painting’, he explains; ‘I especially love the translucent colours of Giotto and Piero della Francesca. The surface texture of fresco painting contains a space that I can enter easily’ (Y. Nara, quoted in interview with M. Matsui, 2001, http://www.indexmagazine.com/interviews/yoshimoto_nara.shtml [accessed 18 December 2019]). The viewing experience, then, is one of dualities: the flat two-dimensional figures, whose forms appear to hover illusively on the surface, are underscored by a sense of restless animation, hinting at the troubled waters lurking within their depths.