“We should rediscover art that exists in what we think of as subculture. It’s strong and real anywhere you bring it because it’s directly born of the everyday folks rather than of tradition.”
With over twenty exhibitions across the globe in the last two years alone and two major solo exhibitions anticipated for 2014, Yoshitomo Nara’s popularity has no doubt far surpassed many Japanese contemporary artists working today. Initially recognised as part of the Neo-Pop movement along with Takashi Murakami during the 1990s, for over two decades, the iconic images of cute yet devilish girls and sleepy-eyed dogs produced by the artist have successfully marched on to become an indisputable pillar in the paradigm of Japanese contemporary art. While loneliness and music are often cited as a source of inspiration behind the creation of these rebellious children, a compelling part of his works is sentimentally devoted to the free spirits of youth and a rejection of reality. The ethos of the night, in particular, remains to be one of the most captivating and cherished channels for the artist in pursuing the uncharted realm of dream, where it is constantly seen as a place of eternal youth. Among the works associated, the monumental Night Walker (Lot 143) from 2001 certainly sits at the forefront, perfectly paralleling the artist’s subtle desire of trotting through childhood memories, and defiantly shattering the rigid boundaries set within contemporary society. The rare work also belongs to one of three exceptional large-scale paintings, together with Princess of Snooze and Ghost, from the early millennium to portray the motif of night and dream.
Born in Hirosaki, a city in the Aomori Prefecture hours away from Tokyo, Yoshitomo Nara obtained his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, before attending Kunstakademie Duesseldorf in Germany in 1988. Though he was frequently associated with Takashi Murakami and the Superflat movement in the 1990s, all along, the artist has emphasised on the importance of individual experience and personal sentiments in his artistic practice rather than strictly following art historical theories. As he commented in an interview in 2012, “Overseas, everyone started to read the work within the context of Murakami’s Superflat theory. In a way, they can be explained with that, so that’s fine, but for me they were much more personal. All the children and animals depicted came from inside me, not from a theory.”1 This articulation of the artist’s own emotional disposition has not only contributed to the immense popularity of the iconic solitary child, but also created a unique resonance with the masses. The Night Walker, in particular, mesmerisingly pinpoints the subconscious pursuit of a long lost dream seeped deep within every viewer.
Featured in the artist’s first group exhibition “Jap in a Box” at Stephen Friedman Gallery in London in 2001, the lot on offer features a young girl in a pastel blue night dress, bearing a half-slanted smile and closed eyes, obliviously drifting across a creamy white background. While the girl in Night Walker, Princess of Snooze, and Ghost are marked by closed eyelids and displayed in a floating posture against similarly rendered white backdrops, Night Walker is in essence the highlight among them, as it showcases an extremely refined treatment to the movement of the body, from the slightly bent waist to the relaxingly outstretched arms. The work is proved to be all the more significant as it is arguably one of the few large canvas works to showcase the full torso of the young girl, before the artist concentrates fully on shoulder-up portraits in the latter half of the 2000s.
The theme of night has reappeared throughout Nara’s painting works from the mid-1990s to the present. From The Longest Night in 1995 to the recent portrait Can’t Wait ‘til the Night Comes from his major solo exhibition “a bit like you and me…” in 2012. In many ways, it is through this motif where one is able to grasp a genuine view into the contemporary culture of today’s youth. As Nara described his typical teenage years, “That’s right, it was those sleepless nights back then! Those nights I’d bike around the town till I was exhausted, riding back and forth in front of the house of a girl that I liked…If her room light was on, I felt 120% sure:‘She’s there!’ with my heart pounding, I’d ride back home and tune into a midnight radio station.”2 Even after he began his career, the artist is frequently known to work throughout the night, finishing each of his canvas works in one complete session. Thus, on many different levels, the notion of night is seen as a reminding metaphor for those passing years marked by freedom and independence.
Among the various canvas works related to night and dream, the image of the young child has transformed and aged over the years, subtly corresponding to the artist’s changing mindscape; from the earliest works that bear strong outlines and inclusion of playful props such as a lamp in the mid - 1990s, to the pastel colour palette and refined technique in late 1990s to early 2000s, and finally the maturation of rendering unfinished paint layers in the late 2000s. However, none can so effectively convey the power of dream as the lot on offer, where the young girl is seen to be hypnotised and completely taken away towards the realm of unreality. The tightly shut eyes and surreal gesture are indeed the most iconic features among all to display this spiritual departure.
Having created one of the most impressive and prolific careers among Japanese artists today, Yoshitomo Nara remains to be in the forefront of the Japanese art scene precisely for his genuine depiction towards the universal theme of youth and childhood. As he once expressed, “We should rediscover art that exists in what we think of as subculture. It’s strong and real anywhere you bring it because it’s directly born of the everyday folks rather than of tradition.” While many of his works focus on the characterisation of the lonely child, Night Walker is truly the work that stands far apart from others, as it represents the artist’s early rare attempt in searching beyond the realm of the conscious mind, unraveling the subtle desire ingrained deep within.
1 E dan Corkill, “Yoshitomo Nara Puts the Heart Back in Art”, The Japan Times, 2012
2 Yoshitomo Nara, “Teen-years: From the stories of my records, part 2”, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, 2010
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