The recorded interview was conducted on July 3, the day after installation of the retrospective was completed following a lengthy delay due to the Safer at Home Order implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Facing the uncertain reality of the postponement of his retrospective, Nara shares the story of his working process, his inspirations, his work as a catalyst for communication and shared interests, and the unanticipated inclusion of a new painting created during the pandemic that reflects a new artistic direction.
Yoshitomo Nara is among the most beloved and globally recognized Japanese artists of his generation. Spanning 36 years of his practice from 1984 to the present, this international retrospective gathers over 100 major paintings, sculptures, and installations as well as 700 works on paper. As Nara’s work is permeated by his love of music, the opening gallery displays over 350 records the artist has accumulated over the past 40 years. The images on the record covers introduced him to a vast array of artistic genres merging in his subconscious and eventually making their way into his art. Raised in Aomori in northern Japan, where he first heard American folk and rock music during the Vietnam War from a radio broadcast serving the nearby U.S. Misawa Air Base, these records have allowed him to confront the complexities of war, ongoing nuclear power debates, and ecological disasters.
Music’s ability to convey emotional depth and atmospheric power finds a parallel with Nara’s artworks. His work, which combines visuality, emotion, and text, has evolved dramatically over the last three decades, from his earliest allegorical paintings from the late 1980s during his studies at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf while residing in Germany, to his iconic portraits of vaguely ominous-looking figures with penetrating gazes, occasionally wielding knives or cigarettes where innocence becomes one with destruction itself. His paintings of heads and figures that float in empty spaces reflect self-confrontation, marked by an increasingly kaleidoscopic palette and layered brushwork. These stand in contrast from the rougher, “DIY” aesthetic of his works on paper and drawing huts, as well as the highly polished fiber-reinforced plastic surfaces of his early sculptures. His latest works are more meditative, with ceramics and sculptures in cast bronze whose mottled surfaces evoke the artist’s hand, as reflected in Miss Forest—a 26 ft. painted outdoor bronze sculpture that graces Wilshire Blvd. This exhibition aims to reset some of the dominant perceptions of Nara’s work—a departure from the harshness and intensity of his earlier practice—by examining the self-critical introspection that has become prevalent in the quiet, contemplative practice in the last decade, particularly since the great 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.