LACMA’s retrospective of the work of Yoshitomo Nara features paintings, drawings, sculptures, ceramics and other pieces that convey the artist’s penchant for music, modern art, literature and childhood memories.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents “Yoshitomo Nara,” the first international retrospective of artist Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959).

The exhibition surveys more than 30 years of the artist’s work — from 1984 to 2020 — through the lens of his longtime passion to music.

Known for his portraits, Nara’s subjects are vaguely ominous-looking characters with penetrating gazes that occasionally wield objects just as knives or cigarettes, as well as heads and figures that float in dreamy landscapes.

Nara’s oeuvre reflects the artist’s raw encounters with his inner self, taking inspiration from memories of his childhood; music; literature; studying and living in Germany (1988–2000); exploring his roots in Asia; and modern art from Europe and Japan.

“Yoshitomo Nara” comprises more than 100 major works, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, ceramics, an installation that recreates his drawing studio, and never-before-exhibited idea sketches that reflect the artist’s empathic eye. One of the exhibition highlights includes “Miss Forest,” a 26-foot outdoor painted bronze sculpture that will be installed on Wilshire Boulevard.

Following LACMA’s presentation, the exhibition will travel internationally to other museums, including the Yuz Museum, Shanghai.

The exhibition includes over 350 records from Nara’s collection. The album covers were artistic influences for him.

“Yoshitomo Nara is among the most important Japanese artists of his generation, and one of the most recognized artists working today. We are excited to be organizing this international retrospective,” said Michael Govan, LACMA CEO and Wallis Annenberg director. “Nara’s art reflects his interest in art and culture of both past and present. His interest in art history — ranging from 12th-century Japanese Buddhist sculptures and handscroll paintings, Italian early-Renaissance painters, and other European modern influences — mirrors LACMA’s encyclopedic nature. Referencing contemporary music and album covers, Nara possesses the unique ability to capture a complexity of emotions that reflects the cultural psyche of the current generation.”

Exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake stated, “Music has been a passion for Nara since he began to listen to folk songs at age nine, and his relationship with music, namely with album cover art, provided him with an unconventional introduction to art history and artistic genres. This passion is seen through Nara’s vast record collection, selections of which visitors will see as soon as they enter this exhibition. Through more than 100 works on view, the exhibition will bring new light to Nara’s conceptual process.”

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with a foreword by Govan, introductory essay by Yoshitake, and text by Nara. A limited edition of the catalogue features a clamshell case with 14 booklets, as well as a vinyl LP with original music and covers by American indie rock band Yo La Tengo on Side A and songs from the 1960s and ’70s selected by the artist on Side B.

Nara’s love of music ended up providing him with an unorthodox art education: the images on record covers not only became signifiers for music but also introduced him to a vast array of artistic genres, with covers and their corresponding music merging in his subconscious. For the young Nara, growing up in Japan among the shadows of war and economic recovery, the records and their covers served as sources of escape and eventually as a valuable form of self-empowerment, allowing him to deal with the complexities of living with the remnants of Japan’s imperial past and in close proximity to signs of ongoing conflict.

Nara’s gilded “Miss Forest” (2010).

Today, Nara’s studio wall displays a vast array of records he has accumulated over the past 40 years, including folk, rock, blues, soul, and punk albums.

This exhibition aims to move away from some of the dominant perceptions of Nara’s work with Japan’s Neo-Pop movement (largely associated with Takashi Murakami), and also shift the focus from the harshness and intensity of his earlier practice to the self critical introspection and individuality that have become more prevalent in the quiet, contemplative work he has made in the last decade, particularly since the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The artist’s inspiration from the world of 1960s and ’70s folk and rock music filters throughout his practice.

After taking several lengthy journeys to Europe in 1980, 1983, and 1987 while attending art school at Aichi Prefectural University of the Arts, where he obtained his BA and MA,

Nara was accepted into the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf and lived in Germany from 1988 to 2000 (Dusseldorf from 1988 to 1993 and in Cologne until 2000). This was a period of great isolation for Nara, during which he was reminded of his adolescent years in Aomori, and the development of psychological depth and introspection in his paintings.

While Nara’s immense popularity within the Neo-Pop milieu has dominated the critical global reception of his practice to this day, having spent his formative years as a young artist in Germany, Nara sees his work more in dialogue with American and European subcultures.

Exhibition Highlights

In Nara’s earliest works made at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, allegories of good and evil collapse, and innocence becomes one with destruction itself. Compositions are divided in half or in quadrants, and figures with elongated heads wear halos, with their hands transforming into flames or knives.

In “People on the Cloud” (1989), a horizon line splits the composition — animals, people, and hybrid figures crawl along the outer edges of the frame. Nara masterfully situates the figures between symbolic and physical planes of the piece. Each figure is surrounded by anxiety and sadness, with gazes that verge on imminent violence.

Nara’s “My Drawing Room” (2008).

“No Nukes” (1998) depicts a stern, pigtailed girl holding placard that reads, “No Nukes.” Painted over a promotional poster for bossa nova musician Vinicius Cantuária’s “Amor Brasileiro” (1998) among other printed ephemera, it became powerful symbol in July 2012 when the artist allowed protesters to download a high-resolution image of the work to use as picket signs during one of Japan’s largest anti-nuclear protests. As many as 100,000 people gathered to rail against the government’s decision to restart two nuclear reactors in Fukui Prefecture, many with this image, dubbed “No Nukes Girl,” in hand.

“Fountain of Life” (2001/2014) is a motorized sculptural installation of heads with closed eyelids that tower over one another inside an enormous cup with water that streams down the figures’ cheeks, forming a fountain of tears. The melancholy of this work is palpable, and the figures’ clean profiles evoke the richly outlined paintings of Japanese abstract painter Morikazu Kumagai, whom Nara has long admired.

Nara began creating portable installations of his paintings, drawings, and sculptures, which ranged from the three-part installation “S.M.L.” (2003) to the epic 26-installation exhibition “A to Z” (2006). These domestic environments culminated in “My Drawing Room” (2008), a painted wooden architectural structure that recreates Nara’s studio space. A handpainted billboard with the words “Place Like Home” hangs on the exterior, and the inside features piles of drawings on the floor and a desk with figurines, mix CDs that Nara curated, vernacular paintings, drawings, ephemera, and collectibles from vintage Americana shops that the artist has accumulated over the years.

Starting in 2005, Nara’s singular portraits began to take a dramatic turn, each projecting a complex expression that combines sadness, anger, and serenity. In “Missing in Action – Girl Meets Boy” (2005), fire from an atomic bomb explosion is reflected in one of the eyes of the figure, representing a memory of Hiroshima, where this work is housed. The political valence of this work on paper connects the fading memory of the previous generation who experienced the war with the younger generation of Japanese youth who can only indirectly experience this decisive moment.

Nara’s “Peace of Mind” (2019).

Nara’s work took a dramatic shift following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which occurred only 43 miles north of his studio. Emotionally affected by the aftermath, Nara painted “In the Milky Lake/Thinking One” (2011), a portrait of a solemn girl with closed eyelids who wears a green dress and is half-submerged in a barely visible pool of water; it was the only major painting he produced in 2011.

While confronting the March 11 disaster and nuclear crisis, Nara made “Miss Spring” (2012), a portrait of a wide-eyed girl with a high forehead who stands against a cherry blossom pink background and stares straight at the viewer, with prism-like teardrops glistening in her eyes. A symbol of hope, this portrait served as the cover image for Ryuichi Sakamoto’s “No Nukes 2012: Guidebook for Our Future.” “Miss Spring” was used as a powerful backdrop banner by the protest organizers during the demonstrations.

About the Artist

Born in 1959, Nara grew up in Hirosaki, in Japan’s rural northern prefecture of Aomori. Having graduated with an MFA from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music, Nagakute, in 1987, he completed his studies at the Kunstakademie, Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1993. Nara began his career during the decade he spent in Cologne, and from the mid-1990s he exhibited widely in Europe, the U.S., Japan, and all over Asia.

His return to Japan in 2000 coincided with a surge of global interest in Japanese pop culture, particularly in the U.S. While he is primarily a painter, his practice encompasses drawing; sculptures made of wood, FRP, ceramic, and bronze; installations that incorporate scrap materials; and photographs that document everyday landscapes and the encounters he has during his travels.

Nara’s numerous solo exhibitions include “Drawings — Last 31 Years,” The Bastide Gallery, Château La Coste, Provence, France (2019); “for better or worse: Works 1987–2017,” Toyota Municipal Museum of Art, Toyota, Japan (2017); “Life Is Only One: Yoshitomo Nara,” Asia Society Hong Kong Center, Hong Kong, China (2015); Blum & Poe, Los Angeles (2014); “NARA Yoshitomo: a bit like you and me,” Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama, traveled to Aomori Museum of Art, Aomori, and Contemporary Art Museum, Kumamoto (2012); “Nobody’s Fool,” Asia Society, New York (2010); “Yoshitomo Nara + graf,” BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, U.K. (2008); “Yoshitomo Nara + graf,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Den Haag, Netherlands (2007); “From the Depth of My Drawer,” Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2004); “Nothing Ever Happens,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland (2003); and “NARA Yoshitomo: I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME.,” Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama (2001).

About the Publication

Accompanying the LACMA exhibition is a richly illustrated 224-page hardcover catalogue co-published with DelMonico Books/Prestel that features a foreword by Michael Govan, an introductory essay by exhibition curator Mika Yoshitake and a series of reviews by Nara, previously unpublished in English, of albums from the 1960s and ’70s.

In addition, a limited edition of the exhibition catalogue, packaged in a clamshell case, includes 14 booklets and a colored vinyl record featuring songs drawn from Nara’s favorites from the 1960s and ’70s. Side A includes one original song written and a selection of covers performed by Yo La Tengo (Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew). Side B includes original recordings by artists including Geoff & Maria Muldaur, Bobby Charles, Karen Dalton, and Donovan.

The publication and limited-edition exhibition catalogue are available for purchase at the LACMA Store or lacmastore.org.

LACMA is located at 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (323) 857-6000 or visit www.lacma.org.

Photos courtesy LACMA

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