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Yoshitomo Nara

by Kara Besher

The artwork of Yoshitomo Nara is deceptively simple. Peopled with entities that call to mind toddlers or infant animals with their balloon heads, persimmon pit-eyes, and pinprick noses, each work is a peek into a world that seems eerily familiar.

A long-term resident of Cologne, Nara is being met with increasing international attention, having already exhibited in Milwaukee, L.A., Cologne and Seoul, with New York scheduled for later this year. Tomio Koyama, the artists Tokyo dealer, says that a major Nara sculpture was recently purchased by an American collector, and is earmarked for long-term loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

With a couple of books both in their second run, a limited edition wristwatch and a clothing line that incorporates motifs from his artwork, Nara is well on his way to developing a cult following in Japan.

Two concurrent exhibitions--one at the Ginza Art Space, the other at Tomio Koyama Gallery--show Naras bizarre storybook musings through drawings, paintings, fiberglass sculptures and a series of never-before-shown assemblages.

In the drawings, kiddies are engaging in innocuous solo activities: holding a flag, playing in a box, sitting on a potty, holding a book, standing in a puddle. But sometimes they are brandishing sharp little implements--knives and saws. Nara captures these scenes in a moment of stillness.

The children look up at the viewer with what seems to be a air of wariness. Or is it complicity? Do those heavy eyelids indicate post- or pre-nappy time, or do they embody a jaded cynicism, incongruent with the insouciance of childhood? Each work is an emotional trigger which has different effects on different viewers.

Sometimes, the artist says, he receives zealous messages from fans. One even slipped a note into his pocket. I know exactly what you are saying, the note said, I understand. "Maybe they understand more about the work than me," he says modestly.

What is it about this art that elicits such a strong response? It doesnt seem very complicated. The style is intentionally flat, with blunt, uniformly thick lines. This, combined with a lack of modeling, texture or strong coloration, seems to force attention to the subject matter. Yet there isnt much of that. Narrative content? Not much of that either. Expressiveness? Not really.

Naras artwork "clicks" because we sense that beneath the sparse execution is a direct portal to a personal, almost intuitive vision.

"I only draw what I know from experience," Nara says. Since they embody specific memories, or impressions, the works take on a marshmallowy snapshot quality. Like illustrations from a deranged childrens textbook ("S is for Switchblade...") they are narratives, but with no temporal start or finish. As such, the works have an almost totemic completeness.

Stylistically, an artist can do two very brave things in their careers: a Picasso-like switching between unrecognizable styles, or a Morandi-like pursuit of the same relentless vision (the challenge here is to maintain a pitch of intensity across a long line of similar works). It could be said that Nara falls into the second category.

The artist says he has no choice in the matter; he is compelled to do these images: "Even if I try to draw something different, it always comes out this way."

His hand moves reflexively over the canvas, and the image emerges almost of itself. This has inspired some to call what Nara does a form of "automatism." Despite the implied mediumistic overtones, the artist sees this impulse as ultimately coming from himself.

One characteristic painting is "Slash with a Saw/Nokogiri." In it, a pig-tailed girl stands impassively within the picture surface. The lack of reference suggests a groundless solitude that might make for a certain vulnerability, if not for what the girl is holding: a jagged-edged saw.

But this is no tree-house builder. The title, combined with the girls ambiguous expression, contributes to an almost palpable feeling of dread. What, or who, is she going to slash with that saw?

Nara doesnt feel these weapons are instruments of aggression. "Look at them, they are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those?" he counters. "I dont think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives...."

Indeed, most of the figures in the paintings are looking up from a low vantage point, peering out into a world that is both threatening and mesmerizing. On second glance, is this a power discrepancy between the strong and the weak, and if so, could we be the aggressors?

To take sweet images from childhood, even as children could draw them, and infuse them with so much sharp-edged adult apprehension is not an easy thing to achieve, but Nara does. The utter disproportion between subject matter and mood creates a disturbing effect. The combination, though, is oddly satisfying.

Ours is a world where watching Teletubbies is the come-down of choice for experienced ecstasy ravers, where Pee-wee Herman is caught frotting himself in a movie theater, where heavy-headed Minnie Mouses are regularly molested at Disneyland. We have made a sport out of perverting our childhood icons. The betrayal implied in Naras work resonates, because it expresses a universally shared loss of innocence.

The enigmatic, abbreviated quality of Naras style may be an invitation for you to take your best subtextural potshot. But take care. In doing so, you risk revealing a lot about yourself, more than might be comfortable. Naras artworks are sticky-sweet booby traps, Rorschach tests for a post-modern innocence quotient. They are candy-cane puzzles begging to be deciphered, only to reveal the cavities inside our own grown-up hearts.

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"Walking Alone" at The Ginza Art Space, until Feb. 14.

"No, They Didnt" at Tomio Koyama Gallery, until Feb 6.