By Anne Muscat
Last Tuesday, Yoshitomo Nara, a contemporary Japanese artist, delivered an informal lecture entitled “From the Depth of My Drawer—My Works, My Childhood” at Columbia University. In the modestly sized presentation space relatively full of students, professors, and fans of Nara’s work, I noticed a middle-aged man in the corner, dressed casually in a gray zip-up jacket with tousled hair and broad-rimmed reading glasses, peering at a laptop.
It took me longer than I care to admit to realize that I was looking at Nara himself. I guess I’d imagined the artist to look overly eccentric or even slightly kooky (think Andy Warhol) as this would “match” his artistic style. But Nara appeared nonchalant, chatting in Japanese with a woman who would later serve as his translator. A woman briefly introduced the artist, asking that everyone refrain from taking pictures or thanking the man with gifts after the talk. This clearly didn’t stop numerous people from stealthily snapping pictures; although I’m sure this was to be expected due to Nara’s popularity and renown.
For those who aren’t familiar with Yoshitomo Nara, he’s considered one of the most prominent figures in the Japanese Neo-Pop art movement. He’s famous for his bold yet simple portraits of animals and children, characterized by their oversized heads and exaggerated features. Many of these paintings give a sinister or mischievous impression.
Since the 90s, Nara’s works have been exhibited globally in small, independent galleries and acclaimed museums alike. His paintings, sculptures, and drawings bear resemblance to Japanese anime and manga (Japanese comics). Nara’s biography can be found all over the internet; however, his lecture revealed more about his upbringing, creative process, and inspiration than a Google search ever could.
Nara began by projecting images of a shelf in his studio, neatly organized with frontward facing vinyls, DVDs, and books. He mentioned his fascination with 60’s and 70’s punk and classic rock, proudly showing off his many albums including “Morrison Hotel” and “Buffalo Springfield”. The artist told the audience that these records were what he listened to while he worked and the song lyrics and melodies often influenced his pieces. For example, Nara’s “Light My Fire”, an acrylic sculpture of a child holding a flame, may be a nod to The Door’s well-known song of the same title.
After spending a generous amount of time praising his favorite albums, Nara went on to thoroughly describe the northern Japanese town of Hirosaki where he grew up. He emphasized the immense cultural differences throughout Japan and showed black and white photographs of his hometown, pausing to comment on his nostalgia for his childhood.
The lecture was anything but serious. Nara’s sense of humor shone through as he joked about naked pictures of himself as a baby being pornographic and mocked his teenage self’s eagerness to paint a nude model who, much to young Nara’s disappointment, turned out to be an old woman. He spoke fondly of his parents and their experiences, recalling how they generously funded his first year of college-level schooling even though he spent most of the money traveling around Europe for three months.
Halfway through the talk, Nara started explaining his ventures into the art world. He admitted that he enjoyed writing poetry and had originally wanted to study literature, although he confided that he was a poor student. Nara also loved music, but after his talent was recognized by many, it was ultimately art that he pursued. One of his paintings he showed depicts himself torn between his passion for music and painting.
Unlike other artists who have a consistent creative process, Nara confessed that he doesn’t have a go-to method. However, he told the crowd that he often paints many different images over each other on one canvas until he feels a connection with one. To the group’s delight, Nara displayed a never-before-seen painting of a sly child which he ended up covering because it didn’t feel authentic. He described the initial work as feeling somewhat like an imitation of his own style.
Although viewers may identify many of Nara’s figures as female, Nara shared that he saw them as genderless. In fact, he revealed that he regarded some of his characters as self-portraits, claiming that his mother would agree.
Yoshitomo Nara remains relevant and admired inside and outside of the artistic sphere. His paintings possess a child-like innocence yet are haunting in essence. He puts forward a certain sense of non-conformity, much like the teen angst and punk rock that inspires him. While scholars and critics can speculate about the motivation behind and purpose of an artist’s repertoire, hearing it directly from the mouth of the person behind the canvas is as real as it gets.