Los Angeles, CA

Japanese Artist Yoshitomo Nara's Sweetly Sinister Images on Exhibition at LACMA

Elle Silver

You can catch the retrospective of Nara's work at LACMA until June 5th.

Yoshitomo Nara's work on exhibition at LACMA.Credit: zaptapper

Viewing Yoshitomo Nara's work feels like walking back in time to my 1970s childhood. The artist listened to the same British and American rock music that I did growing up. The albums he was most influenced by are on display in his retrospective show now on exhibition at LACMA.

Album covers on display at Yoshitomo Nara's retrospective show.Credit: zaptapper

A whole room is dedicated to Nara's paintings that have a distinct 1970s feel, in the hues of orange and green. But I don't just see the 70s in his work. I see the 80s and the 90s as well.

One of Yoshitomo Nara's paintings.Credit: author

His style reminds me of the art you'd find in the zines in the 80s or in comics published in Fantagraphics, the underground comics publisher that brought artists like Dan Clowes of Ghost World to fame.

Though people have likened Nara's work to manga, the artist refutes that he’s influenced by traditional Japanese comics. Nara told Robert Ayers of ArtNews:

“The fact is I have never once said that I’ve been influenced by Japanese manga. For a very long time I have created my art from a spiritual point of view. It is filled with religious and philosophical considerations.”

Still, it's hard to say that Nara's work doesn't have a comic-book feel with the large-eyed subjects he paints. The "cute" images often have a menacing feel to them. He twists his childish subjects into new shapes by giving them knives and other weapons to wield.

ArtNet describes his work as "simultaneously sweet and sinister." Take this painting depicting a boy with the word "pyromaniac" emblazoned above him.

Painting by Yoshitomo Nara.Credit: author

Still, Nara does not see his child-like subjects as perpetrators, even if they have knives in their hands.

The artist told Kara Besher:

"Look at them, they [the weapons] are so small, like toys. Do you think they could fight with those? I don't think so. Rather, I kind of see the children among other, bigger, bad people all around them, who are holding bigger knives..."

I'd still say that Nara is clearly pushing the boundaries of social propriety in his work like many comic-book artists did in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, such as R Crumb.

Painting by Yoshitomo Nara.Credit: zaptapper

Something about Nara's work remains steeped in childhood, as if Nara himself never totally grew up. That's not a bad thing. By looking at his art, I can imagine him drawing as a child and staying true to his essential style as he matures.

The viewer gets a glimpse into how and where Nara might have created his art as a young man in a shed that is on display at LACMA. The shed could be a replica of where Nara might have hung out drawing as a kid, listening to LPs on a record player. You can see his work spread out all over the floor beside the player.

Shed on display at Yoshitomo Nara's exhibition.Credit: zaptapper

Interior of shed on display at Yoshitomo Nara's exhibition at LACMA.Credit: zaptapper

It didn't surprise me at all to read that Nara grew up as a latchkey kid, also a very 70s phenomenon. This was the time before after-school programs. If moms worked, the kids returned home from school to wait alone until their parents got home. During those long hours he spent by himself, it was just Nara and his imagination.

But the question remains: if Nara grew up in Japan, why does it feel like his childhood influences were so similar to mine in the States?

Easy. During Nara's formative years, the artist was absorbing the same influences that I did as a kid because he grew up during an era when Japan was being flooded with Western media: comic books and Warner Bros. and Disney animation. He listened to music on the American military radio station Far East Network.

It's not surprising that Nara ended up creating cover art for bands such as Shonen Knife, R.E.M., and Bloodthirsty Butchers. He shot to fame in Japan and developed a cult following of fans from around the world. His paintings regularly sell for millions of dollars.

You can see these works at LACMA until June 5th. I highly recommend you check them out.

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