Nara captures the tension between the innocence and experience, physical isolation and mental freedom, containment and independence. Nara embraces the whole of the human condition and recognizes that, in fact, evil is an essential part of innocence.
Yoshitomo Nara’s Three Stars from 2014 is one of four works from a special series foregrounding the motif of gold four-point stars and executed on burlap. With a penetrating sideways glare, Nara's quintessential disgruntled petite heroine plots to wreak mischievous havoc in the big bad world, manifesting yet another captivating and timeless vision. In the present work, the combination of Nara’s intricately constructed patchwork of jute and exquisitely applied brushwork typifies the artist’s deceptively simple conceptualization of the sullen young girl as a paradigm for the disaffection of Japanese youth. Here, the titular three stars represent the magically insurgent power of children and the radical, rebellious potentiality of the innocent and the imagined, superlatively condensing the grounding ideology and subversive driving force behind Nara’s epochal iconography of endearing and empowering youth. Fashioned in flawless execution with beguiling texture that approaches a sculptural quality, the towering Three Stars presents an instantly compelling and iconic image that ranks amongst the most exemplary of Nara’s legendary oeuvre.
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 yet highly accessible oeuvre that quickly gained an explosive worldwide cult following.
Nara’s endearing creations 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 also evoke traditional Japanese forms from the East, such as Japanese u-kiyo woodcut; as Stephan 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 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 jute and mounted on board, and with the featuring of the sign-like motifs of the three stars, the present work in particular displays stylistic affinities with Japanese ukiyo-e woodcut.
Hailing from Nara’s more recent creative output, Three Stars furthermore represents the culmination of decades of artistic developments, which encompassed forays into sculpture in different mediums, painting on cotton and linen, and in the late 2000s onwards, a more meticulous, meditative and introspective style of brushwork, communicating heightened expression with line and colour. In the artist’s own words: “In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way” (the artist cited in Robert Ayers, “‘I Was Really Unthinking Before’: Yoshitomo Nara on His Recent Work and His Show at Pace Gallery in New York”, Artnews, 14 April 2017). Elsewhere Nara observes how his methodology has become increasingly introspective, noting that: “When I work this way there’s a lot more of a conversation that I have with the image, or with the person who’s depicted in the image. That’s really me having a conversation with myself. It allows me to draw out parts of myself that I’m not even aware are there” (the artist cited in ‘Japanese artist has a taste for Hong Kong’, South China Morning Post, 9 March 2015).
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 Union Square 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, 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).