It is a Japan that can’t so much say “No” to America as one that instead rolls its oversized anime eyes, bites its lip childishly, and says, “Goo!” In this sense Nara’s art, with its cartoon-like depictions of cute little girls with a hint of naughtiness and a touch of evil, is a perfect fit for the image of the new, infantilized Japan—several removes from its proud samurai past.
But there have been signs that this artistic approach has not really been working for Nara, especially when things “get serious” as they clearly did last year with the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. In the aftermath of that mega-tragedy, painting cutesy caricatures of little girls must have seemed redundant, which is why he stopped painting for several months.
The large solo exhibition of his work at the Yokohama Museum of Art charts his route back to painting via sculpture, a new medium of expression for the artist. Subtitled “A bit like you and me…” the exhibition seems to be employing the same techniques as Nara’s subjects by trying to be cute and appeal to our sympathy, before getting up-close-and-personal with a life-sized recreation of his studio.
But interesting as this is, the artistic reality is that there are serious flaws with the giant sculptures that form this exhibition’s centerpiece. The key point about Nara’s art has always been its cartoonish two-dimensional quality. Transposing the flat spaces and naïve lines of his little ladies into 3-D creates something gross and off-putting.
There is a whole room of these swollen-headed monstrosities at the exhibition, but, in accord with the wheedling, emotionally manipulative vibe of the show, we are encouraged to judge them not purely as artworks but also as “therapy pieces” that helped Nara return to painting. Actually, they might have achieved this simply by demonstrating what an abysmal sculptor he is.
As for his new drawings and paintings, some of them like Miss Spring (2012) show signs of an enriched palette, with a few added touches of color in the hair and glitter in the eyes, but essentially his latest works show no advance or development. These are still the same iconic, naughty, little imps he was painting 20 years ago; nebulous enough for visitors to associate with their own “mischievous darlings.”
The earthquake threw Nara out of his cozy stride and even temporarily into the heroic world of sculpture, but this exhibition shows that normal service has been resumed. Imagine a toddler who gets upset and bawls her head off for a few minutes before getting a nice candy from her mum. Instantly, the dark shadows are dispelled, and the sunshine smile is resumed, perhaps with a hint of a cunning, manipulative leer. That naughty little miss is Yoshitomo Nara.
Yokohama Museum of Art, until Sep 23 (listing).