"Look at them, (the weapons) are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don't think so, rather, I kind of see the children among other bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives."
Deceptively innocent on the exterior, Yoshitomo Nara’s Girl with a Knife (1998) stars the artist’s iconic character—a singular image of a young child with an exaggerated head, piercing eyes and mischievous mug. The little girl clenches a small, green-handled knife to her right—caught red handed, either in the act of brandishing the tiny weapon or attempting to hide it behind her back from her unseen opponent. Her left arm is raised defiantly as she scowls at her invisible foe—her nagging parents, a relentless bully, the daunting world around her, the viewer. The duplicity in Nara’s rebel heroes is apparent in the artist’s own working process: “I paint, making whatever I want, however I want. Maybe it’s just twists and turns of the ego, and lots of dead time, but action easily banishes worry. To be able to transform the thoughts of the heart into work in the outside world is a lucky gift. It hardly matters if what takes shape is a mix of good and bad” (Y. Nara, quoted in K. Chambers, Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens, exh. cat., Cleveland, Museum of Contemporary Art, 2008, p. 4).
Beginning in 1868, at the start of the Meiji Revolution, the influx of aesthetics of Western culture have continually influenced and coexisted with traditional Japanese ideologies. The confluence between the East and the West was a prominent factor in the development of the Japanese modernist aesthetic known today. Born in 1959, Nara grew up in post-WWII Japan, a society flooded with Western pop culture, from comic books to rock music to Walt Disney and Warner Brothers animation. This dialogue deeply impacted the artist and the development of his concise yet distinctive graphic iconography—the cheeky child with a big head and even bigger attitude floating around in pale, planar space. Nara’s higher education also reflected this crossover of cultures—after receiving his MFA in 1987 from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Art and Music, the artist left Japan for Germany, enrolling in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf until 1993. Nara continued to work in Europe for another five years after finishing school, and it was during this period spent outside of his homeland that the artist began shaping what would become his discernable style. In 1998, the same year as the present work, Nara took on a teaching position at the University of California, Los Angeles, further instilling the influence of Western culture in his artistic practice before returning to Japan in 2000. Girl with a Knife is part of this period of works prior to Nara’s anticipated return home that signify the defining pinnacle of the artist’s career.
While many of the artist’s post-1990s works feature his distinctive heroines in smooth, pearly expanses, Nara’s earlier body of work juxtaposes innocent, angelic imagery with the rough surface of wood panel supports, as in the present painting. A sense of anarchy persistent in Nara’s protagonists also pushes through in the physical materiality of the artist’s oeuvre—we see raw scribbles strewn across bits of scrap paper, folded postcards and wrinkled envelopes, torn and collaged onto canvas, panel or existing defiantly on their own. Girl with a Knife captures the artist’s confident grasp on raw material. Throughout the surface of the present work, the texture of the wood grain panel peeps through the smooth paint, delicate ink and stark graphite line work. “I’ve learned a lot from Renaissance fresco painting…the surface texture of a fresco painting contains a space that I can enter easily…I also love Giotto’s painting because it makes me feel the strength of a believer” (Y. Nara, quoted in M. Matsui, “An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara,” Index, February/March 2001). Nara embraces the slight imperfections of the wooden surface, and the rough and tough texture of the physical painting mirrors the surprisingly intimidating image of the girl’s devilish demeanor and tight grip on the slight but sharp knife. This rupture of formality in his works parallels the creed of punk rock, one of the artist’s favorite music genres: the release of stifled aggression against factors—adults, injustice, corporations—out of one’s control.
Girl with a Knife, as with many of Nara’s weapon-wielding warriors, pays homage to the abundant and paramount representation throughout the art historical canon of female heroes and liberators of the marginalized and oppressed—strong women like Lucretia defending her honor, Charlotte Corday executing Marat, David slaying Goliath, Judith beheading Holofernes, Timoclea expunging Thracian. As these historical heroes defeated their oppressors, and punks released their frustrations to the world through song, style and attitude, Nara binds these influences into his renderings of confrontational children smoothly composed on textured surfaces. “Look at them, [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don’t think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives…” (Y. Nara, quoted in K. Besher, “Yoshitomo Nara,” Assembly Language, January/February 1999).
The artist’s tiny heroes reveal the purity and innocence of children and the teeming potential of their imagination undisturbed by actual reality. Raised in the countryside as a child of working class parents, the artist was often left alone with little to do but explore to the ends of his imagination. This early taste of independence and solitude echoes the isolation and adult-free world in which his impish ingénues exist. They emanate defiance, naughtiness, rascality, mischief and even some jaded cynicism, and it is no coincidence that these characters intimate the complex emotional state of the artist’s own childhood. As seen in the contemporary Japanese Pop movement, many of the artist’s contemporaries, like Takashi Murakami or Chiho Aoshima, depart into the futuristic fantasy of the anime world. Nara, on the other hand, channels the viewer to another, somewhat more attainable, world through the candor of adolescence. The artist welcomes his audience to rediscover and re-embrace the infinite possibilities of exploration of the child-like mind, asserting that his own childhood, not Japanese comics or Western animation, held the biggest influence over his work by necessitating a wonder-filled imagination. Nara confronts the act of maturing, the expectations of adulthood, the formalities that come with age, but continually reminds us that a slice of purity can exist within the gloom of growing up.