Yoshitomo Nara: neo-pop artist who defies categorisation

Ahead of two important solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, the Japanese artist with a global cult following is dismissive of the way others interpret his work, saying: 'This is just what comes out.'

David McNeill

Like the trademark childlike characters in his work, neo-pop artist Yoshitomo Nara seems both vulnerable and prickly. Although famously reserved, he was once arrested for drawing graffiti in New York's Union Square underground. He generally shuns face-to-face interviews and dislikes questions probing his art. "People who see my works are free to understand them in any way they want," he says via email. "But I think that one of art's good points is that you can ambiguously perceive and feel based on the viewer's personal experiences and living environment."
Fusing anime, pop art and punk rock, Nara has been sculpting, painting and drawing his nightmarish children and animals for more than two decades. His gallery of alluringly sinister characters, racing from the mad dreams of a childish imagination, has a worldwide cult following, making him one of Japan's few globally known art celebrities. Hong Kong gets its first close-up look at what all the fuss is about this month, with the opening of two exhibitions running almost simultaneously at Pace Hong Kong and the Asia Society.
For Nara, the Hong Kong exhibitions bring his relationship with China full circle. He first visited the Chinese countryside in 1983, when Japanese tourists were as rare as sparrows in winter.
"I communicated by writing kanji [Chinese characters] on a piece of paper," he recalls. "With people in the countryside who couldn't read kanji, I drew pictures on paper. Everyone was very kind, and I think we understood each other." Despite the intervening years and China's enormous leap forward, he believes his drawings can still connect on an instinctual level. "If my feelings are conveyed to those who have a heart, then I think that is a good thing."
Nara's work has been seen both as a detached commentary on the pressures of Japanese adolescence and a symptom of it. He once explained he started drawing during his latchkey childhood because "it was an emotional landscape that I could understand". The youngest of three boys, he had workaholic parents during the rapid-growth era of the 1960s and '70s, taking refuge, like many Japanese boys, in the cartoon world of Astro Boy and Speed Racer.
His flat, two-dimensional pictures have the clear lines of manga cartoons and are often populated by sulky, bulbous-headed children sporting knives, saws, clenched fists or cigarettes. The pictures draw on the rebellious motifs of punk rock, a point reinforced by references throughout Nara's work to New York rockers The Ramones and other musical icons.
He plays "deafeningly loud" music while painting and once designed a CD cover for Japanese punk girl band Shonen Knife. Canadian rock veteran Neil Young, however, is his all-time favourite artist. "He [Young] has a spirit of equality and freedom, bravely singing his songs that make us think what's around us," Nara says.
The darker undertone of alienation, anxiety and impotent anger in his art, however, inevitably reminds Japanese viewers of the murderous children who pop up from time to time in the nation. The most infamous of these, a 14-year-old known as "Boy A", killed two pre-teens in 1997. More recently, a Nagasaki teenager bludgeoned her classmate to death last year, then hacked off her head with a hacksaw. Are the girls in Nara's pictures similarly angry, dangerous, helpless or isolated?
"I don't know myself," says Nara. "If I can explain it in words, then I don't think there's any need to make it into a picture."
Nara invariably rejects simple categorisations of his work as a "commentary" on this or that, and bristles at the suggestion that he himself is someone who has not grown up. He says he was raised "to not draw a line on things".
"I don't understand the definition of 'adult' that questioners use," he continues, declaring that he dislikes simple binaries such as "child" and "adult" or even "Japanese" and "Chinese". "Humans might have a common personality based on the town and environment they were raised in, to some extent, but you shouldn't be able to judge people under the same standard. I think the same goes for categorising people as adults or as children."
Critics praise that dismissive approach to cultural, political and even generational boundaries. American art critic Roberta Smith calls Nara "one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring".
Nara with his Wall Painting for Nara’s Cabin. Photo: AFP
"He seems never to have met a culture or generation gap, a divide between art mediums or modes of consumption that he couldn't bridge or simply ignore," she said. His art bridges "high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile", and is "so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot".
It also clearly resonates with his fans. In Japan, Nara has become something of a franchise, lending his images to T-shirts, picture books, key chains and alarm clocks. That popularity speaks volumes, say some, about the emotional dislocation of many Japanese youth. But if so, it is a dislocation that travels well: American TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek have also borrowed his menacing shtick as shorthand for teenage passive aggression.
The artist is also a favourite among international art collectors; last September auction house Sotheby's Hong Kong held a three-week-long solo selling exhibition titled "The World According to Nara", showcasing more than 15 works covering paintings, drawings and sculptures dated between 1988 and 2010.
Nara's art has been praised for empowering adults by "inducing self-reflection and promoting self-discovery", in the words of one critic. Typically, the artist himself waves away highbrow interpretations of what he does. "I don't think too hard about it," he says. "This is just what comes out."
Some have detected a softening of the adolescent angst in his later work, resulting in less confrontational art. Instead of green-eyed malevolence, his children appear to be dreaming, or to have their eyes closed. One of the newer pieces shows a typically saucer-eyed adolescent holding flowers. Is that a peace offering? Nara reluctantly admits that reflects his own changing relationship with the world: "I think that being able to see things from a broader perspective as I aged and gained more life experience has had an influence."
Several prints in his Pace Hong Kong exhibition, part of Art Basel, shows his figures interacting with golden four-point stars. The motif suggests typically ambiguous Nara concerns: are the gold stars a reward for schoolwork or a cynical nod to "the optimism of childish bromides such as 'shoot for the stars' and 'wish upon a star'" asks the blurb for the Pace show. "The many facial expressions of Nara's figures suggest these meanings, be it the hopefulness of a child gazing up at the stars or a more adolescent cynicism, chary of any sense of hope."
The Hong Kong shows will widen the debate on Nara's work. The artist says he is "not unhappy" at his growing popularity with Western collectors, but says he hopes his work "will be spread not only among Westerners and not only among art collectors but naturally among those who have a good heart". He insists he gives little thought to his place within contemporary art, Western or Japanese.

"What I should be doing is, first of all, producing art that I think is good," he says. "I think what made me the person that I am now is creating works of art that I want to see myself and not being concerned about who will acquire my works or presenting my works."

Designers created pop-art posters for this year’s Best Picture contenders

By B.G. Henne

It’s the end of February, which means most folks either have an actual seasonally appropriate flu bug, or else they’ve got Oscar fever (sympathies to those who suffer from both).
Oscar week means trying to get caught up on the major nominations you’ve missed, griping about snubs, and pausing to watch nominees turn in horrible early career performances.

Even stock media purveyor Shutterstock is vulnerable to the charms of the golden statue. They’ve tasked designers with assembling their own pop-art version of Best Picture nominees (using Shutterstock high-quality images, of course). The posters cover a range of styles, and each piece is accompanied by commentary about the artist’s inspirations and approach to their respective subject. The full collection is available to view here.

Pop Art iconography a hit with collectors

AVANTI NIMavantin@sph.com.sg
IN under three years, Sukeshi Sondhi has managed to sell more than 50 canvases - not bad for a new artist. Most of them are screenprint paintings of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, rendered in a Pop Art style popularised by iconic artist Andy Warhol.
The collection of works is titled An Icon and a Legend. She explains, "People think the icon and the legend both stand for Mr Lee, but actually, the icon is Mr Lee and the legend is Warhol."
Originally from India, Sondhi became a Singapore citizen five years ago. While attending a Warhol exhibition at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands in 2012, she was approached by a gallerist to submit her works to an upcoming exhibition titled Your Singapore, which was funded by the Singapore Tourism Board.
Sondhi had already been doing Indian Pop Art and she wanted to deepen her connection with Singapore. She picked Mr Lee as the subject because "he is the only person who is truly iconic in Singapore", she says.
"Also, Warhol and Mr Lee are contemporaries who both rose to fame in the 1960s," she adds.
Of the many available pictures of Mr Lee throughout the decades, Sondhi settled on a youthful image of him from the 1960s, one she calls "Man on a Mission." To her, the expression on Mr Lee's face conveys the idea that he is "going to conquer the world and put us on a map... he looks regal and charismatic".
Like Warhol's depiction of famous figures such as Marilyn Monroe and John Lennon, Sondhi repeats this one image several times using different colours and on different canvases to emphasise Mr Lee's iconic status.
The paintings have been a hit with collectors, with some buying more than one canvas to give their friends and loved ones.
Senior banker Eugene Yang, a repeat client of hers, bought three paintings. He says, "Other artists take a sombre approach when depicting Mr Lee, but Sukeshi has captured him at his fiery best - this is a man you'd want to meet."
Ms Sondhi's paintings range from S$800 to S$5,000, depending on size, and are available for purchase via her website sukeshisondhi.com

Notts: Exhibition of work by Pop Art forefather Richard Hamilton to open at Lakeside Arts

Works by one of the most important printmakers of the late 20th century, Richard Hamilton, are going on display at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts next month.
Dubbed the forefather of Pop Art, the themes and concerns of Hamilton’s paintings and drawings were also pursued in his graphic works on which he collaborated with some of the greatest master printers of the 20th century.
The selection of 43 works on display represents the full range of his technical accomplishments from traditional engraving, etching and aquatint, to screen printing in the 1960s.
The exhibition ends with the newly emergent digital media embraced by the artist in his later years.
His use of imagery from popular culture is reflected in such early prints in the exhibition as Adonis in Y-Fronts from 1963, and the 1991 laser print Just What Is Is That Made Yesterday’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?
The original 1956 collage on which the latter work is based featured a muscle man surrounded by various consumer goods of the modern home and is one of the most iconic images of the Pop Art movement.
Equally famous was Hamilton’s series of prints titled Swingeing London.
They depict Mick Jagger hand-cuffed in a police car following his arrest for drugs possession in 1967.
Hamilton also designed The Beatles’ White Album and the exhibition includes a digital reinterpretation of a folded collage of the Fab Four that was originally sold within the record sleeve.
Made in 2007, it proved to be the artist’s last print.
Contemporary and political issues provide the subjects for other of Hamilton’s prints including a number of works concerning the troubles in Northern Ireland.
The Citizen, from 1985, makes reference to the ‘dirty protest’ by IRA prisoners in the Maze prison in the late 1970s.
Others depict a parading Orangeman and a patrolling British soldier.

The exhibition runs from 7th March to 31st May and entry is free.

A Handy Guide to Pop Master Roy Lichtenstein

By Sehba Mohammad on February 2, 2015

Most people instantly recognize pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s blown-up reproductions of comic strips and advertisements, populated by hard-edged figures and made up of hundred of Ben-Day dots. Aside from aficionados, many don’t know much else about the painter, sculptor, and filmmaker, who over the course of his three-decade career became one of pop art’s leading figures, creating a style that was smart, original, fun, and accessible. To give some insight we’ve put together a handy list of resources that will get you up to speed on both the artist and his artworks.

The Artist
The New York Times article was written by art critic extraordinaire Holland Cotter in lieu of the 2012 exhibition Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. The write-up touches upon the pop icon’s beginnings at Manhattan’s Art Students League and his inclusion in famed dealer Leo Castelli’s stable. It also goes into depth about the artist’s evolution from depictions of cartoon characters to art historical homages.
The Life and Art of Roy Lichtenstein

The 49-minute documentary mainly comprises of a revealing interview with Lichtenstein, interspersed with narrations about the artist’s life and additional interviews with people close to the artist including his gallerist, Leo Castelli. The film reveals intricate details about the artist’s subject matter and practice.

“Crash! Bang! Boom! It’s Roy!” By David Bowie
Interview Magazine
The conversation between pop legends, Bowie and Lichtenstein, reveals the lighter side of the painter, who reveals his motives behind using Mickey Mouse in his early works, referring to the cartoon character as so American and anti art. Bowie’s questions range from technical: “why do you feel that a romantic or emotional situation needs to be represented mechanically?” to more broad ranged: “does the general public know when it’s looking at art?” Lichtenstein responds to all of them in his characteristic straightforward and causal manner.

The Artworks
The Museum Syndicate website has a representative selection of Lichtenstein’s artwork. They include his iconic ’60s romantic comic book works, such as Hopeless (1963), depicting a teary eyed dejected woman, as well as his ’70s pieces, rife with art historical references. The site also contains a few of his later, abstract works such as Water Lilies with Cloudcan, painted in 1992, five years before he died.

Public Sculptures/ Public Murals
The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation was established a few years after the artist died to continue his legacy. The foundation websites contains a comprehensive list of the artist’s public works located all over the country, and world. They run the gamut from an aluminum sculpture of a house at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul, South Korea to a 6-by-53-foot canvas installed in the New York City subway station.

Roy Lichtenstein: Sculpture and Drawings
Although he was famous for his paintings Lichtenstein also created many sculptures and drawings. In fact the artist was trained in classical drawings, and used the medium throughout his life for private records and to workout the details of his paintings. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC held the first retrospective of the artist’s sculpture and drawings in 1999. The website allows you to tour the show via images.
Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective (2012)

The book Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, gives a more thorough overview of Lichtenstein’s work. Written and compiled by curatorial genius James Rondeau, it examines the pop master’s entire oeuvre, featuring 130 paintings and sculptures, along with lesser known drawings and collages. It includes essays by historian Yve-Alain Bois, curator Chrissie Iles, and scholar Stephen Little. However, what really adds gravitas to the book is a  complete chronology of the artist work, compiled by the Lichtenstein Foundation.

Art lovers unite for Pop to Popism bus trip

16th Jan 2015 12:00 AM
Roy Lichtenstein's 1963 work In The Car is part of the of the Pop to popism exhibition, opening November 2014, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Antonia Reeve
Visit the acclaimed pop art show - Pop to Popism - currently taking Sydney by storm in the company of other art-lovers by booking a seat on a special bus trip being laid on by Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery.
'Pop to Popism' at the Art Gallery of NSW showcases more than 200 pieces including works by the major American and British artists - Warhol, Lichtenstein, Koons, Haring and Hockney alongside Australia's very own pop artists Howard Arkley, Martin Sharp, Brett Whiteley and Maria Kozic.
Pop art exploded onto the cultural scene in the early 1960s as a new generation of artists rebelled against 'high art' to embrace the world of advertising, film stars, pop music and consumerism. The show includes masterpieces such as Roy Lichtenstein's first comic-style painting Look Mickey, Andy Warhol's Triple Elvis and David Hockney's Portrait of an artist.
The trip also includes a visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art to see 'Chuck Close: prints, process and collaboration' America's highly acclaimed photo-realist painter known for his large-scale portraits of celebrities and high profile public figures. Included among his many iconic portraits are Brad Pitt, Kate Moss, Lou Reed, Roy Lichtenstein and President Obama.
The MCA event is the largest exhibition of Close's work ever presented in the southern hemisphere and is exclusive to Sydney.
The bus departs Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery on Wednesday February 25 at 6am, returning at 9.30pm on Thursday February 26. Twin share per person costs $225 or single occupancy $290. The price includes transport, entry to the exhibitions, accommodation (at the Great Southern Hotel), breakfast and morning and afternoon tea on the bus.
Bookings are essential and close on Thursday.

Bookings and payment can be made through Coffs Harbour Regional Gallery Reception, which is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-4pm, or call 6648 4863/6648 4861. 

Durham display for pop art prince Paolozzi

Sample diet plan for diabetics by nutritionist Prema Kodical
PAOLOZZI PRINT: An Empire of Silly Statistics…A Fake War for Public Relations by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi
AN EXHIBITION of work by a pop art pioneer will is to visit the region.
General Dynamic F.U.N. features 50 screenprints and photolithographs created by the late Scottish artist Sir Eduardo Paolozzi between 1965 and 1970.
Paolozzi was a compulsive collector and enjoyed turning the mundane, derelict and mass-produced into complex graphic images.
His friend JG Ballard described the series as ‘a unique guidebook to the electric garden of our minds’.
General Dynamic F.U.N., a Hayward Touring exhibition from the Southbank Centre, London, will be at the DLI Museum and Durham Art Gallery from Saturday, January 31, to Friday, April 10.
The Durham City venue is open 10.30am to 4pm Wednesday to Saturday during school terms and 10.30am to 4pm Tuesday to Sunday during school holidays.
Entry costs £4 for adults, £3 for concessions and £2 for children aged four to 16.
For more information, visit dlidurham.org.uk or call 03000-266-590.