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  • Provenance

    Marianne Boesky Gallery, New York

  • Catalogue Essay

    Yoshitomo Nara creates works of art that transcend national boundaries. Famous for his punk cartoon-like cast of girls, Nara’s subjects are iconic and unforgettable.The present lot, Winter Long, with the lone image of a hooded red-haired girl, is a fierce example of Nara’s world where the young subjects are caught between cute innocence and awareness, as well as existential melancholy and rebellious liberation.
    Born in 1959 in Hirosaki, a small rural town in the countryside of Japan, Nara grew up during a time when commercialization was on the rise and Western influence was in full-effect. Walt Disney cartoons were making their way to the east and there was also a proliferation of cartoons from within Japan. “Certainly American cartoons and Japanese comics and animated television shows such as Gigantor and Speed Racer were a part of his childhood, but equally influential were the landscape of the Japanese countryside, the isolation it imposed, and the imagination it fostered” (K. Chambers, “AVisit to Naraland,” Nothing Ever Happens, Cleveland, 2003, p. 28). Nara attended the university inTokyo and Aichi. At the age of 28, Nara went to study independently in Germany. Rejecting the academy and authority, Nara’s punk spirit led him to unmask an iconography, which later came to embody his own unique style.
    As evidenced in Winter Long, Nara paints his spare compositions in a palette that is muted and subtle. His figures are static and inhabit a shallow space on the canvas. Influenced by the legendary Florentine, Renaissance painter, Giotto, Nara states, “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” (M. Matsui, “An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara,” Index, February/March 2001, p.64). Giotto’s use of color, as well as his solid rendering of figures, is reflected in Nara’s work. He takes on flat backgrounds, figures that consume the entire space of the canvas, and forfeits linear perspective in order to settle the viewer’s gaze and encourage an investigation of what passions might lie behind the painted innocent expressions. One may even go so far as to say that the stoic tranquility and compositional balance that Nara transmits in his paintings, as in Winter Long, harks on neoclassicism.
    In addition to the various classical inspirations that Nara draws from, he is also heavily influenced by contemporary, popular culture. Not only is this evident in the subjects of his work, suggesting well-known cartoons, but it is also evident in his creation process:
    “Nara works alone in his studio, usually late at night, with punk rock screaming from speakers. He chain-smokes as he concentrates on channeling all of his past ghosts and present emotions into the deceptively simple face of his current subject. Each painting- each figure- is typically executed in the span of one night, capturing both a range of emotion and a specific mood. Through his work, Nara confronts the joys and difficulties of childhood and wrestles with the strong hold that the early years have on the later ones. His catharsis is art” (K. Chambers, p. 26).
    Nara’s reductive and straight-forward paintings probe beyond the surface and delve deep to consider emotions that as humans we must face on a day-to-day basis. He touches on one of the primary philosophical, and arguably most difficult, concerns of the human condition—growing old and leaving childhood and adolescence behind.
    “On the surface, Nara’s kids appear uncomplicated, even bored at times, yet one doesn’t have to look far to uncover the layers of mischief and emotion bubbling beneath—it’s as if the harder you look, the more these children seem to know and the more you have to learn. Through the faces of his subjects, Nara invites us to linger, to leave the rules at the door and enter the more fluid and uninhibited world of children. While many of his contemporaries embrace the escapism afforded by the futuristic fantasy\ and play of anime, Nara does not retreat entirely into the make-believe. Rather, he provides a conduit to another world—a world hopefully still within reach—through the immediacy and directness of children. He invites us to reconnect with the imaginative and imaginary possibilities in their distant but once familiar land” (Ibid).
    Nara works through these existential themes by creating a profound language that not only speaks to the viewer on an emotional level, but also on a psychological level that entices nostalgia and the imagination. Nara’s characters, such as the little red-headed girl in the current lot, remind us of our youth and of the close proximity of fantasy at that age. We are called upon to contemplate the liberating sentiment felt when exercising the imagination. As adults, we abandon this ability and give way to serious systems of how to act in society.
    As in Winter Long, “his characters are devilish, fairy-tale strange, and not afraid to embrace the anxiety and intensity that defines existence at any age. Nara challenges the world of grown-ups, full of unyielding expectations and entrenched codes of behavior. He reminds us that we all grow up too fast, and he invites us to reclaim the qualities of youth. If our rigid system of checks and balances keeps the anarchy at bay, Nara reminds that such restraint comes at a price: it cuts us from the spirited anarchist within” (Ibid, p.27).
    Nara’s images urge us to quietly contemplate our childhoods and remind us of youthful feelings of liberation—free of social constructs and uninfluenced by society. Although the little girl in Winter Long is portrayed in a naïve fashion, her expression is mischievous and enigmatic, implying an underlying awareness. Recalling the mysterious half-smile of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the little girl in the current lot has an expression that is hard to discern. Her direct gaze suggests to the viewer, though, that although she has an innocent appearance, she is well-aware of her surroundings and of the inevitable human condition of growing old. There is a certain sense of rebellion in her gaze, which also captivates the viewer instantly.
    It is interesting what occurs when looking at a work by Nara— beginning with the instant appeal the viewer feels towards the character(s) in the paintings, and then leading to a realization of the more thought-provoking and emotionally complex content of the work, one is simply enchanted. As exemplified in the present lot, one is charmed by the girl in her baby-blue hooded sweater, and then senses the defiance in her character. The way in which she is represented probes this existential questioning of the self. “Nara captures the tension between the innocence and experience, physical isolation and mental freedom, containment and independence. Nara embraces the whole of the human condition and recognizes that, in fact, evil is an essential part of innocence” (K. Chambers, p. 29). The artist displays a world that is simultaneously perfect and pristine, but also of despair and loss. The viewer feels caught between these two realities and inevitably feels the melancholic pull of Nara’s work.
    “This is melancholy. When artistic production involves self-reflection, it refers to a lived childhood, individual and collective, to which there is no return. There is a poem byYoshitimo Nara on the inexorable nature of passing time: “Time passes by / Before it fades and vanishes. I want to grab even a bit and make it last, Imagination doesn’t stop for the past or the future. And that makes me both happy and sad”
    (D. Krystof and B. Schwenk, “If You are Lucky,You are Hit by the Window,” Yoshitomo Nara, Hiroshi Sugito: Over the Rainbow, Ostfildern, 2004, p. 73).


Winter Long


Acrylic on canvas.

47 1/4 x 43 1/4 in. (120 x 110 cm).
Signed, titled, and dated “Nara [in Japanese characters] Winter Long ’99” on the stretcher.

$450,000 - 650,000 

Sold for $338,500

Contemporary Art Part I

13 Nov 2008, 7pm
New York