Design Anthology: In Conversation with Japanese Artist Yoshitomo Nara

September 16, 2019

Nina Starr

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In Conversation with Japanese Artist Yoshitomo Nara
By: Nina Starr

For celebrated Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara , drawing is as innate as breathing, or even thinking. Although the 59-year-old artist is best known for his cartoonish paintings and sculptures of menacing yet sweet children and animals, drawing is nonetheless an integral part of his creative process. It’s a practice that has accompanied him throughout his life for as long as he can remember, and one that’s entirely spontaneous, revealing his inner thoughts, feelings and ideas, as he follows his emotions without consideration for the eventual audience. Staring at us with their eyes wide, his complex characters smoke, swear, glower, cry out slogans, play music and brandish knives; they are depictions of alienation, vulnerability, anger, joy, hope, fear, rebellion and violence, representing everything from childhood wonder to teenage angst. They’re at once threatening and innocent, even as Nara’s process has become more introspective and meditative as he explores emotional truths we can all relate to.

We sat down with him in the garden of the 17th-century bastide art gallery of Chateau La Coste, which is currently hosting his exhibition of 155 drawings created over the last 3 decades.

Nina Starr: Does your work reflect much of yourself and your life?

Yoshitomo Nara: Yes. There are several themes that appear different in my work, but I feel that there’s something that links all of them together, because there’s a bit of myself here and there, scattered everywhere, although the amount might be different in each one.

What is the most important consideration when you first start creating an artwork?

I do my best work when I start making pieces with nothing in my head, with an empty mind. But probably the most important thing is to be in a space where I can be alone to create.

How would you describe your exhibition at Chateau La Coste? 

This show is a panoramic view of the past 30 years — from when I was a student up to the present — and contemplates the relationship I have with drawing, or how I’ve been getting along with it over time. There are pieces that capture my feelings and thoughts at a given time or momentary ideas I’ve had. Some are accumulations of drawings accompanied by words, and others are simply the result of my hand’s motions when holding a pencil. All of these drawings are done with whatever pencil or ballpoint pen happened to be there in that moment, in varying techniques, as casually as breathing itself.

Do you remember your first drawing?

Yes, very well. It was before nursery school. I drew on a blank page of a book that belonged to my father; I think it was the first or second page. It was a picture of a curtained window looking out onto a landscape, drawn in red pencil. There was something very abstract about it. I think I drew pretty well as a child, I loved it, but I also liked to go on adventures. For example, I’d ask myself questions like ‘Until where I could walk if I walked the length of a river?’ And this sort of thing I liked doing alone, rather than looking for someone to do it with.

How are your drawings different from your prints, paintings, sculptures, ceramics and installations?

Painting is something more objective and controlled, while drawing is more intimate, uncontrolled and raw. Some drawings may be a little naive. Drawings show what’s inside, and then on the surface, there are paintings, sculptures and other works. 

Why have you made the iconic image of a young girl your signature?

This current exhibition is chronological; we see images of little girls from the beginning, and that we see them more and more is the consequence of my having eliminated other things. I don’t know why they’re wicked, but maybe it’s because I’m bad, which is reflected in my works. I have two contradictory desires: to appear as someone good in front of people, but at the same time, I want to be myself, so I think that my work expresses what I’d really like to be. I’m not at all influenced by manga, but if there are images that have influenced me, it’s those found in the children’s picture books I grew up with, by Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm or Aesop, for example. They all reflect our darker side. Among all these sinister tales, the best known in Japan is Little Red Riding Hood, but there were many stories with little girls as protagonists, like The Little Mermaid, and there were plenty of princesses.

You’ve been making art for 3 decades, what continues to motivate you?

People call me an artist and I have exhibitions all the time. I work hard to create my art and there have been some developments, but in my mind, I’m still a student. I consider myself a little like a secondary school student, and I feel that I’m slowly starting to see what I would really like to study. I’ll certainly continue to make art, but I’d like to travel more and do many things, like tracing back the history of my family to the island of Sakhalin, which today is considered part of Russia.

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