While Nara's work is often associated with Japanese pop culture including anime and manga, his output should be viewed through the lens of his childhood in post-war Japan. Nara was born in 1959 in the rural north of the country. A lonely latchkey kid, his early years were informed by illustrated children's books and Western music playing from the radio of a nearby military base. Following a period studying in Germany under A. R. Penck, Nara developed his trademark language and technique, creating complex characters in a deep investigation of childhood sensitivities. In his paintings, figures stare out to us wide-eyed, or smoke, swear and scowl.
Nuanced considerations of alienation, anger and curiosity are undertaken with each work. The apparent naivety of the character and animals he depicts are juxtaposed with slogans and often salty language. The contrast deftly illustrates the angst of adolescent experience. The characters are at once cheeky, vulnerable and threatening. In this way Nara's work crosses cultural and national boundaries in its examination of emotional truth, and essentially human dilemmas.
"This solo exhibition is comprised of ‘paintings' (on canvas), ‘billboard paintings' (patched cotton mounted on wood panel) and ‘drawings' (on paper). Upon hearing this description, most people would think that this sounds like an ordinary exhibition for a painter. However these new paintings on canvas are more painterly than other works I have shown previously. They are marked by a conscious use of colour and subtle layering, which has become important in my recent practice. In contrast to my work on canvas, I originally called the paintings on wood panel ‘billboard paintings', due to their catchy and iconic imagery and the use of flat planes of colour that is reminiscent of the style often used on billboards. Although the ‘billboard paintings' in this show are still evocative of this style, these ones which are rendered on patchwork cotton are much more painterly, with many layers of colour.
Drawing is natural to me. Without being conscious of the eventual audience, I usually follow my emotions and just draw. For this show I am exhibiting a series of drawings that I think of as being mental images without colour. It is probably the first time that I have shown so many of these drawings all at once. I work in sculpture and installation, but for this exhibition I became very conscious of showing myself as a painter." Yoshitomo Nara, April 2016.
Nara's work seamlessly fuses elements of western Modernism with references borrowed from popular culture. Most notably, the artist has underlined the important influence music has had on his practice. Ranging from Rock and Punk to the artist's fascination with folk and amateur music subcultures, his diverse taste has an ongoing effect on both the content and style of his work. When viewed in this context, the lyrics and slogans that accompany the subjects of his paintings can be seen to resemble album covers. In this way Nara reflects on the force that music and pop culture wield during adolescent life and the crucial role they play in forming one's identity. This is particularly pertinent in the global environment that children now grow up in, in which they are exposed to multiple influences from around the world via the internet. The result is a distinctive language that is imbued with an immediate and strangely universal familiarity.
Drawing and painting have long been concurrent and equally important in Nara's practice. In making his return to Stephen Friedman Gallery, Yoshitomo Nara's work is as fresh, relevant and affecting as ever. His re-evaluation of contemporary portrait painting has been critical in Japan and his work continues to appeal to our contemporary sensibility worldwide. In Nara's own words "If you look only at the surface, my work will not really reveal itself to you".
Private view Wednesday 27 April, 6-8pm