Wake me up before you go-go
Don’t leave me hanging like a yo-yo
With a devilish gleam in her eyes, the young dancer in Yoshitomo Nara’s Long Sleeves A Go-Go brandishes her elongated sleeves like a magician conjuring a trick with masterful sleight of hand. Observing the bravura of her stance, the dexterity of her motion and the daunting impertinence of her countenance, we are compelled to wonder what aces are up her billowing long sleeves. Set against a rounded tondo-esque composition, the combination of Nara’s intricately constructed patchwork and delicate Renaissance-esque brushwork along the surface of the fiberglass disk exemplifies the artist’s mature 2000s aesthetic, culminating in a striking portrayal of a fearless little girl prepared to take on and conquer the big bad world. Meanwhile, the title Long Sleeves A Go-Go associates the portrait with nightclub go-go dancing as well as the musical sub-genre of go-go, a blend of funk, rhythm, blues and hip-hop with a syncopated beat, underscoring the dynamic role of music that influences Nara's oeuvre. Insolent, slightly wicked yet ultimately adorable, Long Sleeves A Go-Go captures the fascinating tension between childhood and adolescence, innocence and mischievousness, whilst extending the lineages of Pop, figurative painting and classical portraiture into the 21st century.
Born in 1959 in Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture, Nara was born to emotionally distant workaholic parents in post-war Japan and grew up as the youngest of three sons by a drastic age difference. As a result, Nara’s childhood was for the most part spent alone, and his formative years were marked by intense feelings of isolation. Such sentiments were echoed in Nara’s adult years in the 1990s when the artist spent five years studying in Dusseldorf, Germany. During this time, the solitude of Nara’s first experience living overseas not only made him recall the loneliness of his childhood; it also, as the artist writes, enabled him to restore a proper “sense of my true self” that he had almost forgotten because of his sense of “being watched by other people” while living in Japan (the artist quoted in Exh. Cat. Nara Yoshitomo: a bit like you and me..., Japan, 2012, p. 129).
Parallel to this personal growth was an important artistic development that profoundly shaped the course of Nara’s career. During his time in Germany, the artist immersed himself in Western art history and viewed classical masterpieces in the flesh. One of the most important influences cited by the artist is the pre-Renaissance Italian painter Giotto; and indeed, upon careful and considered examination, intriguing parallels can be found. Stephan Trescher observes: first, both artists engaged in distorting shifts in pictorial space and scale: Giotto in background landscape, Nara within the individual figure. Second, both artists rendered space-engendering figures against flat backgrounds, a style that effected directness and simplicity. Thirdly, the fine surface work in both artists’ paintings constitute an uncanny plastic presence: as Trescher writes, just as “Giotto’s figures always remain oddly nonphysical [with] enormous plasticity […] the equivalent can be found in [Nara’s] undifferentiated children’s bodies […] which have such a presence in the space” (Stephan Trescher, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”, in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Michael Zink Gallery, Munich, 2002, p. 12).
Upon Nara’s homecoming to Japan in 2000, one year prior to the creation of the present work, the artist’s style evinced subtle technical maturations – a disintegration of sharp lines into nuanced, meticulous and poetic brushwork, and a warming of his palette with pastel colours. In the present work, the surface texture comprises multiple layers of translucent colours and a multitude of intricate tones, which imbues the otherwise flat composition with an enigmatic sense of depth. The enchanting figure of the little girl itself is reflective of various facets of Japanese visual culture: the comics and graphic novels of manga and its video form, anime. Whilst also 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 as well as traditional Japanese forms; as Trescher writes, “[…] the full-body portrait in front of a neutral background, the relationship between figure and the picture plane, the image-object and the empty surrounding space […] the blurring of the boundary between printmaking and painting – all can be found in Nara’s art as well as in coloured prints from the 18th and 19th centuries by Hiroshige, Hokusai or Utamaro” (Ibid, p. 11).
The rounded form of the present work, which is reminiscent of Renaissance tondo paintings, is also worth noting; commenting on his round paintings, the artist once said: “There is no necessity of having corners”. A Renaissance term for a circular work of art, the word tondo derives from the Italian rotondo, or ‘round’; created since Greek antiquity, tondi (plural of tondo) was revived in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy. Historically, tondi featured enclosed scenes, with the circular composition serving to focus the viewer’s attention on the central characters. The background scene in a tondo is either simplified or omitted altogether – a stylistic strategy that is echoed in Nara’s modus operandi. By synthesizing diverse sources from different traditions and different eras of art history, Nara’s oeuvre operates simultaneously as a universal emotional vehicle through which viewers excavate childhood memories, and a powerful entry point into a re-evaluation of the canon of figurative painting, representation, and storytelling through art.