Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959) is one of the best-known artists of his generation worldwide. Since the 1990s, he has attracted international attention with his so-called “Angry Girls,” heavily stylized images of girls with grim expressions, vampire fangs, and knives in their hands. With their childlike cuteness, the figures recall the aesthetics of comics and cartoons, ranging from snotty brats to naïve, sweet-looking characters.
All My Little Words at the Albertina modern focuses on Nara’s multifaceted oeuvre of drawings, which developed over a period of some forty years and is presented here in a Petersburg hanging arranged by the artist himself. The exhibition ranges from early experimental works on paper and a number of paintings and sculptures to an expansive installation. The drawings, which he sometimes scribbles almost casually on slips of paper, envelopes, flyers, or corrugated cardboard, show the direct influence of music, literature, sub and pop culture that express the artist’s sociopolitical concerns: they negotiate social values, norms, and ideals in a diaristic manner. Nara’s mastery of drawing manifests itself in the richness of an emotional spectrum, ranging from vulnerability to existential depth to rebellion and unruliness.
Yoshitomo Nara | Drawing for "Hardboiled / Hard Luck" | Collection of the artist Courtesy Pace Gallery © Yoshitomo Nara | Foto: Yoshitomo Nara
Nara grew up in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. His parents both worked, and his much older brothers were often away from home. A classic latchkey kid, Nara spent a lot of time alone. At some point, he stumbled upon a radio station of a nearby American airbase and was introduced to country and rock music. This was the beginning of his great passion for music. Without understanding a single word of the English-language songs, he tried to make sense of their content by looking at the record covers, and he began to imagine what the texts were about through intonation, sound, and rhythm. This love of music, the intense feelings it arouses in him, is still part of Nara’s life and his working practice.
In addition to music, the early experience of loneliness plays an essential role in Nara’s work—an experience that was repeated in young adulthood, when he went to the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1988 to study with A. R. Penck and spent the next twelve years in Germany, a foreign land. He often felt reminded of the loneliness of his childhood days. It was during this time in Germany, in the seclusion of the studio, that Nara gradually arrived at his individual expression and own artistic concerns.
Yoshitomo Nara | With the Knife, 2018 | Collection of the artist | Courtesy Pace Gallery | Foto: Keizo Kioku
Due to their super-deformed proportions, Nara’s figures are often associated with the imagery of comics and cartoons. From 2000 on, Nara thus also earned international acclaim as an exponent of Japanese Superflat, an art movement that references precisely this type of aesthetic and its role in Japan’s consumer society. Similar to American Pop Art, it is an anti-hierarchical fusion of high culture, subculture, and everyday culture. While this is may be true for Nara's work to a certain extent, the superficial kawaii serves mainly the purpose of interaction and establishing contact. His drawings are a means of communicating in an equally anti-hierarchical way with expressions that can be understood by everyone: not elitist, informal and direct.
Behind what seems to be innocent or even cutesy creatures at first glance hides a punk attitude—in a critical rather than in a destructive sense: these are strong little personalities who question things, rebel, and do not put up with anything; who defy the adult world and, somehow, their own growing up; who reveal their opinions and feelings with an honesty and authenticity that is unique to children, and who are allowed to have such opinions and feelings.
Image above : Yoshitomo Nara | Miss Margaret, 2016 | Private Collection, United States of America © Yoshitomo Nara | Foto: Yoshitomo Nara
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