Perhaps the most persistent characteristic of Nara’s work is its commercial allure and marketability (expect a strong presence at Frieze this year). This is not to say it has simply been well publicised – though the hagiographic forward from the Dairy co-founder Nicolai Frahm does try its best, describing viewing a new work: “For the next hour everyone sat fixated on the painting, unable and unwilling to utter a word. Each of us was absorbed in a near spiritual experience”. Moreover, his works comprise elements of such a broad span as to appear visually easy to live with yet just presenting the right touch of unease – the cuteness yet menacing undertone of paintings populated by wide eyed, innocent looking children with expressions of mischievous intent – coupled with references to both East and Western cultural influences, all rendered in very palateable pastel colours, simplistic compositions and soft, babylike contours. Put simply, the blend of the distinctive cartoon/manga child motif so prevalent in Japanese popular culture has in effect been applied within the fine art discipline of Western painting, with widespread appeal as a result.
Such is the success of this formula that Nara has rarely strayed from it throughout his career. This is not to downplay the subtle variances and painterly skill within the pieces: within the restrictive framework of the repeated child motif, expert colour construction applied with measured precision makes for a painting surface that is deceptively layered and rich. Instead of flat planes as dictated by the traditionally linear-dominant cartoon method, dabbles of light and golden colours temper the girls’ eyes, hair, with more than a passing resemblance to the glittering surface treatment of Klimt. A discernible palette has been decided upon and stuck to with rigidity, resulting in subtle but distinctive variety between each piece. Such is the consistency of paint application, that a girl whose hair is rendered in delicate painterly swirls rather than blotches instantly attracts greater notice than perhaps otherwise.
Large scale and with enough deviation from the formula, these are pieces more suited to collect, rather than existing independently. They are thus well suited to the large gallery spaces of the Dairy Art Centre, only lightly disguising the impression that there seems to be very much of a muchness going on. Included are a sequences of bronzes, a medium Nara has only relatively recently adopted in 2011. Each is again of the child heads we see in the paintings, cut off at the bust, oversized and over-round, with the same characteristic physiognomy of wide spaced eyes, pudding bowl/crash helmet hair, upturned button nose and slit-like mouth. The additional interest is confined thus to the application of the formula to this new medium, drawing attention to visible hand marks on the surface, the scale and the physically imposing weight of the girls reimagined three dimensionally. They are tailor made for large exhibition spaces; statement pieces to show off the comprehensiveness of one’s collection.
This impression is reinforced by the smaller gallery stuffed with over two hundred drawings dating from 1984 to 2014, revealing not only the process by which Nara arrived at this formula, but also the potential ideas and works discarded along the way. Here is a staggering array of crazy ideas and sketches: Nara clearly has an eye for graphic composition and comic book styles. The variance of the medium used is also fascinating; furious crayon and paint sketches reveal a keen sophistication and energy. It is curious then to see the sketching progressing (or regressing) towards the restrictive limitations that so define his ‘official’ work, the motif of children becoming more dominant, with all other elements slowly dispensed with. Depending on how successful you consider his main work, this is either the development of an artist’s ‘true style’, or the development of a mode of work that best facilitates further practice as a self-sufficient commercial artist: put simply, a mode of work that sells.
Words: Olivia McEwan Photo © Artlyst 2014
Yoshitomo Nara @ the Dairy,Until 05.10.14