When I work this way there’s a lot more of a conversation that I have with the image, or with the person who’s depicted in the image. That’s really me having a conversation with myself. It allows me to draw out parts of myself that I’m not even aware are there.
Instigating an expansive discourse around themes of innocence, Yoshitomo Nara’s oeuvre not only harnesses an address that is both highly personal and universally relatable, but also activates a study on the canon of the gaze – through the infinitely repeated iterations of his doe-eyed young girls. In the very best examples of Nara’s oeuvre it is the figure’s eyes that, as the psychological centers of engagement, form the crux of subtle narratives. Titled Looking at You, the present work is a supreme paradigm of the artist’s practice – one that literally pronounces the phenomenon of the gaze. Executed in 2007, Looking at You displays to flawless perfection the most distinctive feature of Nara’s mature paintings – the strikingly lustrous eyes, here in a singular shade of chartreuse, with luminously prismatic pupils that glisten with the light of distant galaxies. The girl’s electric and magnetic gaze is arresting yet ambiguous: we are held captive, spellbound and transfixed, yet never certain whether her scrutiny is adulatory or accusatory, mischievous or wise, stern or benign. Aided by delicately virtuosic brushwork, Looking at You exemplifies Nara’s mature, more meditative and introspective aesthetic underscored by deeper contemplations on the self and the world.
While in the early 1990s Nara used the emblem of the young girl to explore hostility, rebellion and playful violence, at the close of the decade and into the early 2000s the artist softened his characters’ fickle temperaments. Mirroring these tendencies in his aesthetic, Nara sweetened his palette and dissolved harsh lines to create a sensuous effect of ethereal depth that finds its apotheosis in the present example. As Matsui Midori observed, since 1996 and coinciding with the artist’s foray into sculpture, Nara’s figures began to attain “the illusion of three-dimensionality, coming out of the pastel background buoyed up by luminous shadows” (Matsui Midori, “A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting”, in Exh. Cat. Japan, Yokohama Museum of Art (and travelling), Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, 2001, p. 168). A few years later, starting from around 2005, Nara’s treatment of his subjects’ eyes experienced an important shift: what he once rendered strictly two-dimensionally he began to depict more realistically, imbuing them with more detail, light and shadow. Towards the end of the decade, Nara perfected his technique of prismatic kaleidoscopic eyes, admitting around the time: “They say human eyes are the mirror of the soul, and I used to draw them too carelessly. Say, to express the anger, I just drew some triangular eyes. I drew obviously-angry eyes, projected my anger there, and somehow released my pent-up emotions. [Afterwards] I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way” (the artist cited in “An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara”, Asymptote Journal, Hideo Furukawa, moderated by Sayuri Okamoto, November 2013).
Executed in 2007, Looking at You demonstrates Nara’s accomplishments of these technical enquiries, exhibiting sentimental nuances of color and brushwork that achieve shimmering translucency and mesmerizing depth. The incandescent emerald hues of her irises are realized via an extended painterly process of repeated patient layering; in contrast with his earlier mode of operation, Nara’s creative process in the late 2000s onwards has slowed down to become more meticulous, meditative and introspective. In the artist’s own words: “In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way” (the artist cited in Robert Ayers, “‘I Was Really Unthinking Before’: Yoshitomo Nara on His Recent Work and His Show at Pace Gallery in New York”, Artnews, 14 April 2017). Instead of contextual motifs, such as the cigarettes, knives, torches and fangs frequently found in his earlier works, Nara communicates a heightened poignancy via line and colour alone. Elsewhere Nara observes how his methodology has become increasingly introspective, noting that: “When I work this way there’s a lot more of a conversation that I have with the image, or with the person who’s depicted in the image. That’s really me having a conversation with myself. It allows me to draw out parts of myself that I’m not even aware are there” (the artist cited in ‘Japanese artist has a taste for Hong Kong’, South China Morning Post, 9 March 2015).
Singular to Nara’s oeuvre is his ability to “give priority to the emotional truth of the dream-vision” (Matsui Midori, “Art for Myself and Others: Yoshitomo Nara’s Popular Imagination”, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, Exh. Cat. Asia Society Museum, 2010, p. 13). In Looking at You, the figure’s piercing straight-on gaze creates a uniquely entrancing visual effect, bringing to mind how philosopher Yoshitomo Takayuki described Nara’s works as igniting “the function of another unconscious eye”: one that at once pervades everything and distances itself, “as if it were a recollected vision” (cited in Exh. Cat. Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, Japan, 2001, p. 171). Whether functioning as “dream-vision” or “another unconscious eye”, the power of Nara’s eyes are consummately manifested in Looking at You, in which the figure’s pupils are wholly immersive in their ability to engulf the viewer, communicating the magical surreality of a childhood dream. Just like how dreams or the unconscious offer infinite free-associations of stories and narratives, the spell-binding stare of the figure compels the viewer to delve into dislocated narratives and alternate existential and metaphysical realities within one single image. Enshrined within the gaze of the figure in Looking at You is thus not only the eternal mystery of childhood and innocence, but also the endless imaginative possibilities within adulthood that awaits our awakening. Here’s looking at you, kid – do you still dare to dream?