“It began with a small puddle in my heart where rain was falling incessantly. I swam in this small world of my own like a tadpole. As rain kept falling, the puddle became larger, eventually joining the neighbouring puddle. The puddles formed stronger connections, and there were times when I could not keep pace with their growth, but it made me happy nevertheless.”
—Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in Shigemi Takahashi and Michael Lacoy Eds., Yoshitomo Nara: Shallow Puddles, Tokyo 2015, p. 13

I mmediately captivating and sumptuous in scale, In the Milky Lake is a monumental example of Yoshitomo Nara’s mature artistic output. Featuring the most recognisable Nara heroine rendered in meticulous detail, the little girl in a green dress emerges from a pearlescent neutral background, her feet submerged in a rippling puddle. A major motif in the artist's work and after which Nara named his first major solo exhibition in 1995, In the Deepest Puddle, In the Milky Lake traces an overarching thread in the artist’s practise. Using sensitive brushwork and delicate palette, Nara paints his protagonist with orange hair standing serenely in the middle of a milky lake, arms behind her back and a knowing look written on her face. Beautifully detailed through meticulous layering of pigment, the eyes of this work are the soul of the painting and articulate the artist’s move away from the early mischievous stare of his figures to his later ethereal dreamy gaze. Impressive in size and beguiling in its visual power, it is the first time that the enigmatic In the Milky Lake has been offered at auction.

Album cover of John Hiatt's Overcoats (1975)

Speaking to the artist’s love of music, Nara’s puddle is partially inspired by the cover image of folk singer John Hiatt’s album Overcoats (1975), which shows the singer half-submerged in water wearing his overcoat. Found in some of Nara’s earliest work, the feet of the angel in Fallen Angels (1986) and the girl in Pandora’s Box (1990) are surrounded by concentric circles, with 1995’s In the Deepest Puddle II depicting a girl submerged against a milk-white background. From ancient times, humans have understood a deep reverence toward the transformational power of water as the source of life on earth. Baring a universality in ideology across different cultures, the milky water of Nara’s composition articulates the dialectic relationship between the interior and exterior worlds. Analogous for healing, rebirth and peace, the critic Midori Matsui finds “a mysterious evocation of a boundary” between natural and supernatural worlds in Nara’s paintings, suggesting that Nara’s girls “gaze back at this world from another world beyond it” (Midori Matsui, quoted in Shigemi Takahashi and Michael Lacoy Eds., Yoshitomo Nara: Shallow Puddles, Tokyo 2015, p. 13). It was puddles that began to appear in the first large scale canvases Nara began painting after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, their milky white water absorbing innumerable tears after the devastating events of that year, conveying a universal emotional depth.

Yoshitomo Nara, TOBIU, 2019, © Yoshitomo Nara, photo: Ryoichi Kawajiri
奈良美智,《TOBIU》,2019年作 © 奈良美智,攝影︰Ryoichi Kawajiri
Yoshitomo Nara, In the Deepest Puddle II, 1995
Takahashi Ryutaro Collection, © Yoshitomo Nara 1995, photo by Keizo Kioku, courtesy of the artist
奈良美智,《在深深的水窪 II》,1995年作
高橋龍太郎醫生收藏 © 奈良美智 1995年,木奥惠三攝,圖片由藝術家提供

Following the March 2011 earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan that deeply affected the world, Nara’s work took a dramatic shift. After an initial period of reflection and engagement with local communities worst hit by the disaster, Nara experienced what Yeewan Koon describes as “a fresh surge of creative energy” (Yeewan Koon, Yoshitomo Nara, London 2020, p. 253). Executed the year he returned to his studio after being unable to sketch, paint or draw, In the Milky Lake is demonstrative of this shift in the artist’s visual language, softening the once menacing expressions of his little girls, expanding his colour palette and experimenting with meditative layering. Embodying the artist’s emotional state following these events, these paintings allowed the artist to “have a conversation with myself, and express my various feelings, like being mad or sad. Through painting, my soul gets transcended, then my negative feelings are gone” (the artist, quoted in Wei Gu, “Q&A: Yoshitomo Nara Seeks Lasting Art After Japan’s Tsunami”, The Wall Street Journal, 13 March 2015). Half-submerged in water, the girl’s tranquil facial expression conveys a sense of peace, inviting the viewer into the watery expanse that seems to extend beyond the confines of the canvas.

Flawlessly harmonising, caressing and building numerous layers of pigment, In the Milky Lake demonstrates Nara’s dedicated approach to composition. It was in the late 1990’s that a pronounced shift occurred in the artist’s treatment of the background in which a luminous pearlescent hue replaced the darker more sombre tones of the artist’s early work. Achieved through advanced brushwork and repeated layering, the opalescent hue of In the Milky Lake conveys a complex ambiguity when juxtaposed against the solid substantiality of the figure, creating an ethereal and meditative space in which the knowing innocence of these figures can reside: “In these paintings, backgrounds formerly rendered as voids, indicating the depth of the unconscious, now suggested an illusionistic three-dimensional space in which his characters could dwell” (Midori Matsui, “A Child in the White Field: Yoshitomo Nara as a Great ‘Minor’ Artist”, in Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works, Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Vol. 1, Tokyo 2011, p. 344).

Yoshitomo Nara, In the Milky Lake/Thinking One, 2011
Private collection, courtesy of Frahm & Frahm
奈良美智,《乳白色湖中 / 思考》,2011年作
私人收藏,圖片由 Frahm & Frahm 提供

In the present work, after a decade of practise, Nara’s mastery of colour and the softening of form is in full display. Building up numerous washes before applying a final layer of milky-pigment imbues the canvas with a shimmering translucency in which various hues emerge, illuminated, from the depths of the cloudy lake. Furthermore, when compared to the exaggerated heads and anarchic facial expressions from the 1990s, Nara’s girls now demonstrate “visible signs of humanization: their heads grew smaller, their expressions gentler, their body proportions approaching that of a real child, and their attitudes reflecting that of a thoughtful adolescent” (Ibid). With feathered intimacy and the lightest touch, the head, shoulders and features of the figure are softened to achieve a virtuosic “mixture of tranquillity, classic stylization, and fantasy” (Midori Matsui, “A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting”, in Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, Japan 2001, p. 168).

The present work installed in: New York, Charles Moffett Gallery, Yoshitomo Nara: An Exhibition of Works From a Private Collection, February – April 2020

Eyes open and beckoning, the figure of In the Milky Lake promises to imbue a sense of tranquil acceptance within the soothing water of Nara’s sparkling lake. Offering an ever-expanding body of water into which one might emerge, soothed, from the troubles of the world, the present work provides a therapeutic comfort for both artist and viewer. A sentiment inspired by the devasting effects of natural catastrophes, In the Milky Lake is universal and timeless in its message of peace and compassion.

「它始於我心中的一個小窪,那裡的雨下個不停。 我像蝌蚪一樣在自己的小天地裡漫游。雨不停的下,於是水窪越來越大,最終滙入了旁邊的其他水窪。漸漸地,越來約多水窪連上了,而我再也跟不上它們的『成長』,不過我還是覺得非常快樂。」
—引述奈良美智,錄於高橋重美和邁克爾·拉科伊合編,《奈良美智:淺水窪》), 東京,2015年,頁13頁

《乳白色湖中》是奈良美智創作成熟時期的精彩典範,令人一見著迷。大眼女孩是奈良最經典的主題,在《乳白色湖中》中一位身穿綠色連衣裙的小女孩,素色的背景淡淡散發著光華,女孩站在波光粼粼的湖水中,雙脚被湖水蓋過。這是奈良美智的重要題材,貫串其藝術創作的發展歷程,而他1995 年首次大型個展也是以《在深深的水洼》(In the Deepest Puddle)為名。 奈良美智運用細膩的筆觸和色調描繪畫中主角,她一頭橙髮,靜靜地站在奶白色湖水中央,雙臂藏在身後,臉上表情意味深長。畫中顔料的層次變化非常細緻,而女孩的雙眼是全畫的靈魂所在——她空靈夢幻的凝視,清晰地展示奈良處理女孩眼睛的手法已然轉變,也就是摒棄了早期筆下角色不懷好意的眼神。《乳白色湖中》尺幅宏大而且視覺效果强烈,這次更是本作首度現身拍場。

畫中的水窪源自奈良美智對音樂的熱愛,部分靈感來自民謠歌手約翰·希亞特的專輯 《Overcoats》(1975年)封面圖片,圖片中的希亞特穿著大衣半身浸在水中。站在水中的女孩在奈良最早期的作品也曾經出現過,例如《Fallen Angels》(1986年)的天使和《Pandora’s Box》(1990年)的女孩,她們的雙足都被一圈圈波紋包圍。在1995年的《In the Deepest Puddle II 》中,一個女孩半身浸在水中,身後是奶白色的背景。水是地球生命之源,能造化天地萬物,自古以來人類一直對這種力量心存敬畏。奈良的奶白色水窪展現了一種在不同文化中都有出現的意識形態,闡明內外世界之間的張力。評論家松井碧在奈良的畫作當中感受到自然與超自然世界之間「莫名神秘的疆界」,又似是治愈、重生與和平的比喻,暗示奈良畫中女孩「從另一個世界凝望這個世界」(引述高橋重美和邁克爾·拉科伊合編,《奈良美智:淺水窪》(Shallow Puddles), 東京,2015年,頁13)。水窪在2011年日本東北大地震後奈良創作的首幅大尺幅油畫出現,奶白色的水窪承載著災後人們的無數淚水,傳達了一種普世的深刻感情。

2011年3月的地震和隨後的海嘯震撼全球,奈良的創作也隨之發生重大變化。奈良與災情最嚴重的當地社區接觸後開始不斷反思,藝評家官綺雲形容奈良在此時期經歷了「創造力湧現的新浪潮」(官綺雲,《奈良美智》,倫敦,2020年,頁253)奈良經歷了一段完全無法作畫的時期,最終回到工作室,同年創作了這幅《乳白色湖中》。作品展示了藝術家視覺語言的轉變,筆下的小女孩們曾經充滿威脅性的表情變得比較溫柔,同時他也開始採用更多不同色彩 ,並開始實驗一種層層薄塗的手法,來達到引人沉思的效果。這些作品體現了奈良在這些事件後的情緒狀態:「(它們)是我與自己的對話,表達我的憤怒、悲傷等各種感受。通過繪畫,我的靈魂超脫了,然後我的負面情緒也都消失了」(引述奈良美智,Wei Gu,〈問與答:奈良美智在日本海嘯後尋求持久的藝術〉, 《華爾街日報》,2015年3月13日 )。女孩半身浸在水中,表情平靜祥和,引領觀者進入一個似是延伸到畫布之外的遼闊領域。

在本作中,奈良美智對層次的處理一絲不苟,效果完美和諧,顏料層層輕柔薄塗,展示了奈良獨有的構圖手法。1990年代後期,藝術家對背景的處理開始有明顯改變,明亮的珠光色調取代了早期作品中較陰沉的用色。奈良美智運用極纖細的筆觸,層層薄塗出近乎半透明的色彩效果,奶白的色調與畫中女孩的實質感加起來,傳達了一種複雜的、模糊的性質,創造出一個空靈而帶有冥想性的空間,讓畫中人物洋溢於表的純真長留:「以往空洞的背景是爲了表現潛意識的深度,現在則成為一個幻想中的三維空間,讓他的畫中人物可以住在裡面」(松井碧,〈 白田裡的孩子:奈良美智作為偉大的「稚年」藝術家〉,《奈良美智全集:繪畫、雕塑、限量版作品、攝影作品》,第1卷,東京,2011年,頁344)。經過十年創作,奈良對色彩的掌握已然達到爐火純青的境界,畫中的物象亦變得柔和,一如本作所清晰呈現:在塗抹最後一層奶白色顏料之前,奈良塗上了無數層透薄的顏料,營造閃亮生光的半透明感,各種色調從奶白色的湖面深處浮現。此外,1990年代奈良美智所畫的小女孩頭部與身體比例誇張,面部表情憤世嫉俗,與此相比,奈良如今筆下的女孩「明顯地變得更人性化:頭部較(以前)小、表情變得更溫柔,頭與身的比例接近真正的孩子,態度則近似一個會思想的青少年」(出處同上)。通過無比輕柔的細膩筆觸,女孩的頭、肩和其他特徵都顯得格外柔和,展現「寧靜、古典風格和幻想的糅合」(松井碧,<來自外在的凝視:奈良美智畫作中稚齡人物的優點>,《奈良美智 :《我不介意你忘記我》 ,日本,2001年,頁168)。