Contemporary Art

Yoshitomo Nara's Mischievous Gaze

By Halina Loft
This March, Sotheby's New York Contemporary Curated auction will offer Yoshitomo Nara's captivating 2009 painting, entitled 'Fire' . The masterwork encapsulates Nara's career-long engagement with two important archetypes: the rebellious youth and the lonely child.
Yoshitomo Nara, FIRE, 2009. Estimate $700,000 – 900,000.

E yes – enormous, “cute and creepy” eyes – are a hallmark of contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara’s transfixing artworks. Last October, Sotheby's sold one such pair of Nara's eyes – captured in his 2000 work Knife Behind Back – for $25.1 million, setting a new record for the artist.

But as his career progressed, Nara began to consider the scope of his gaze, and the gaze of his painted subjects, in a new light. In a 2013 interview, Nara spoke on his evolving ocular practice:

"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. About ten years ago, however, I became more interested in expressing complex feelings in a more complex way. I began to stop and think, to take a breath before letting everything out."
Yoshitomo Nara, cited in “An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara,” Asymptote Journal, Hideo Furukawa, moderated by Sayuri Okamoto, November 2013

Completed in 2009, Fire is a striking example of Nara’s mature style – where, as the artist touches on in the above quote, the subject's eyes hold layer upon layer of charged emotion.

In the work, a child peers over the edge of a table, watching as flames and smoke engulf a small toy house. Her eyes reflect flecks of light and color from the fire, swirling with the deep black of her irises. The contrast in tone hints at the myriad contradictory emotions swimming beneath the surface: wonder, enthrallment, fear and curiosity, to name just a few.

If Murakami is Japan’s Warhol, impersonal and deadpan, then Nara is its Keith Haring, sincere and expressive.
Boxer, Sarah. “Yoshitomo Nara.” Artforum, vol. 49, no. 5 (January 2011).

The figure's solidarity implies that she is the rebel arson who struck the match that lit the flame – or, at the very least, she makes no attempt to stop its path of destruction. But just as the child is mischievous, she is also lonely; Nara endues the figure with two important archetypes, the rebel youth and the lonely child, to emphasize the tension between innocence and boldness, childhood and brimming adolescence.

Ultimately, the figure of the little girl forms the most salient motif in Nara's oeuvre. The artist takes his inspiration for her exaggerated, adorable features from Japan's kawaii, or "cute", culture (that of Hello Kitty and Pokémon); another famous Japanese artist, Takashi Murakami, also applies aspects of kawaii to his work. But underlying the cuteness of Nara's compositions are hints of very un-cute, real emotions: in Fire, it's a burning house and mischievous look; in The Little Pilgrim (Night Walking)also up for auction in Contemporary Curated – it's an eerie set of closed eyes and outstretched arms. Speaking on the comparison between Murakami and Nara's borrowing of kawaii culture, Sarah Boxer from Artforum writes: "If Murakami is Japan's Warhol, impersonal and deadpan, then Nara is its Keith Haring, sincere and expressive."1

Nara's Fire will come to auction on 6 March in New York; the auction begins at 10:00 AM EDT. The auction exhibition will open on 28 February, and continue through 5 March.

1) Boxer, Sarah. “Yoshitomo Nara.” Artforum, vol. 49, no. 5 (January 2011).

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