Into this house we’re born – Into this world we’re thrown – Like a dog without a bone – An actor out on loan – Riders on the storm – The Doors
Rock’n’roll rebellion meets poignant vulnerability in Nara Yoshitomo’s universally celebrated oeuvre. Kamehame-ha! exhibits the artist’s trademark amalgamation of young children and young animals, with the figure adopting the well-known pose of ‘Kamehame-ha!’ – the first energy attack in the Japanese anime Dragon Ball series. For all its endearing, adorable and whimsical qualities, the work proclaims a profound personal and universal truth of childhood loneliness and alienation whilst imbuing agency to the imaginative power of youth. Born in 1959 in Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture, Nara’s formative years were marked—if not marred—by intense feelings of isolation: born to emotionally distant workaholic parents in post-war Japan and growing up as the youngest of three sons by a drastic age difference, Nara’s childhood was for the most part spent alone. The artist once admitted in an interview: “When you are a kid, you are too young to know you are lonely, sad, and upset… Now I know I was.” Transforming his intense feelings into art, Nara immortalized his loneliness in portrait after portrait of young solitary children set against barren backgrounds, building a distinctive and universally resonant oeuvre that quickly gained an explosive worldwide cult following.
While Nara’s endearing oeuvre is universally adored, there has been scant scholarly effort to articulate the artist’s specific position and significance in the art historical canon. One of the few to attempt is Japanese critic Matsui Midori, who opines that Nara’s work belongs to the family of “strange figuration”—a style “formed after Cubism, enriching the pictorial plane simplified after abstraction” by “reclaim[ing] the importance of personal emotion” (Matsui Midori, “A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting”, in exh. cat. Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, Japan, 2001, p. 168). According to Matsui, one of strange figuration’s foremost representatives was Balthus, whose portraits of young girls communicated a “unique mixture of tranquillity, classic stylization, and fantasy”. In a similar manner, Nara’s paintings of children constituted a radical mixture of influences guided first and foremost by his “ability to recapitulate essential emotions” through the emphasis on naiveté, which “enhances the style’s poetic concentration and its capacity to incur the viewer’s imaginative projection”.
Nara’s endearing creations also fuse anime, Pop Art and punk rock, combining mischief and innocence to convey a beguiling sugary sweetness on the surface that melts to reveal darker angsts. While immediately reminiscent of Pop and exuding an undeniable Lichtenstein-esque vibe, the artist’s reductive figurations draw also on Modernism’s sign-like shorthand language of images to leaving endless space for fantasy for the child as well as adult viewer. Formally, his works evoke hints of traditional Japanese forms from the East; as Stephan Trescher writes, “[…] a neutral background, the relationship between figure and the picture plane, the image-object and the empty surrounding space, the connection between the image sign and the text sign, the blurring of the boundary between printmaking and painting – all can be found in Nara’s art as well as in colored prints from the 18th and 19th centuries by Hiroshige, Hokusai or Utamaro” (The Doors: “Riders on the Storm” (L.A. Woman, 1971), quoted in Stephan Trescher, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”, in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Michael Zink Gallery, Munich, 2002, p. 11).
Executed on canvas and mounted on FRP, with a lone figure hovering in the middle of the picture plane, Kamehame-ha! in particular displays stylistic affinities with Japanese ukiyo woodcut whilst also being a strong example of the artist’s affinity with animals. Young dogs and cats captured the artist’s heart as a child and became consistent recurring themes within his oeuvre. Nara once recalled in an interview: “When I was a child, I really liked cats. In my neighborhood, I didn’t have a friend my age. When I came home [after school] I was alone… So I always played with cats” (Ariel Conant, "Artist Yoshitomo Nara brings his Life is Only One exhibit to Hong Kong", South China Morning Post, March 23, 2015). Dogs similarly populate the artist’s works, perhaps even more so than cats, and represent both the perceived powerlessness of children (which puts them on the level of animals or pets) as well as an agency found in a world separate from that of adults. The slanted eyes of the figure in the present lot are mischievous bordering on malevolent, suggesting rebellion or even revenge for the haunting loneliness of childhood.
Much like his characters, Nara’s fragile vulnerability is paralleled with a gallant rebellious streak; the famously soft-spoken artist was once arrested for drawing graffiti in New York’s underground. Conceptually, the artist’s oeuvre can be seen as “both a detached commentary on the pressures of Japanese adolescence and a symptom of it” (David McNeill, "Yoshitomo Nara: neo-pop artist who defies categorisation", South China Morning Post Magazine, March 5, 2015); while his revolutionary aesthetic constitutes a seamless unification of Eastern and Western themes and motifs. In American critic Roberta Smith’s words, Nara is “one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring”, with art that bridges “high, low and keitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile” and is “so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot” (Ibid.). The artist himself says: “I don’t think too hard about it. This is just what comes out” (Ibid.).
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