The cartoonish children and animals featured in Yoshitomo Nara’s drawings, paintings, and sculptures enjoy widespread appeal because of their very adult bad attitudes. Whether the characters wield guitars or outsize knives, they have made Nara a genuine crossover artist, taken seriously by the commercial, critical, and academic branches of the art world. He enjoys the adoration of an eager fan base that snaps up his imagery on everything from barrettes to phone covers, leggings to alarm clocks. (At least an hour before the opening of his latest New York gallery show, “Thinker,” at Pace on West 25th Street, a line of young fans stretched down the block, despite a drenching rain.)
Nowadays, however, Nara projects the air of an older, more serious artist. His experiences in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and the death of his father have been cited as influences on his gradual shift toward a more contemplative mood in his work. In the conversation that follows (which was conducted at Pace on Friday, March 31, with the help of translator Chisato Uno), he talks about this shift, and ponders self-discovery, spirituality, and mortality.
ARTnews: You’ve called this show “Thinker.” I take it that the thinker is you?
Yoshitomo Nara: Yes.
If you’re a thinker now, what were you previously?
I was really unthinking before. I would eat because I was hungry, and I wouldn’t think about what I was eating. There was directness that was unthinking. Now I will think about it: “Okay, this vegetable looks tastier; this meat looks healthier”—so I’m more involved with the elements in the process.
It’s the same in my art. In the past I would have an image that I wanted to create, and I would just do it. I would just get it finished. Now I take my time and work slowly and build up all these layers to find the best way. Just like you cook so that you know it’s going to be the most delicious, you find a way to make your art the best it can be.
When I work this way, there’s a lot more of a conversation that I have with the image, or with the person who’s depicted in the image. That’s really me having a conversation with myself. It allows me to draw out parts of myself that I’m not even aware are there. So when I say “thinking,” I don’t mean thinking for anybody else, but for myself—really understanding who I am and what I am. Thinking lets me know that. That’s the part of the creative process that I’m involved with now.
The new “Miss Forest” sculptures in this show are particularly striking. You’ve called them “forest spirits,” and they hint at an interest in our relationship with the natural world. Is that something you’ve always been concerned with?
I didn’t really think about it until my twenties. Up until then, I was really only focused on stuff I liked and was interested in. Then, entering into my thirties and forties, and becoming more of an adult, I started seeing more of the world and even seeing things that I didn’t want to see. My perspective really opened up. Whether it was to do with society or the environment or the relationship between the two, my view of the world became much wider.
I understand that you want these sculptures to outlast you.
Well, I’ll definitely be gone in 50 years, but they’re made of bronze so they’ll still be here!
Are you starting to think about mortality? In the statement you’ve written to accompany the show, you talk about standing alone and staring at the night sky: “The overwhelming solitude of those moments turns into pleasure.” Rather than the existential dread that an artist like Mark Rothko felt as an individual contemplating the universe, you seem to experience a sort of joy.
Exactly. That’s right.
It’s almost a Buddhist acceptance.
Because of the imagery that I usually work with in my paintings, imagery that some people misinterpret as being manga—like, not a lot of people would see this spiritual side of my work. 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.
There’s another connection with Rothko, isn’t there? Increasingly, you are using your relationship with your materials as a means of discovering imagery.
That’s exactly right. In this exhibition I want to make that aspect clear to people who couldn’t see it before. I’ve separated the black-and-white imagery from the work where it’s just color. With a color painting, it’s not about it being an image of a young girl, it’s about the many levels of paint that have built up. Those layers draw out the sensibility of each person who looks at it. I think it provokes you to have a conversation with yourself. That’s what makes the color paintings very different from the black-and-white line drawings.
As you can see, there’s a lot of text that accompanies the image in the line drawings. It’s not there to stimulate your sensibilities; it’s really more superficial. There’s a superficial part to me as well, so I want to show that in the line drawings, but I also possess the sensibility that’s expressed in the color paintings through the layers of paint. That’s actually a part of me that I wouldn’t normally share with other people, but I’m sharing it here.
A painting like this [Midnight Surprise] is an instrument for the audience to have a conversation with themselves, to communicate with themselves. That’s what they’re there for. If there’s a person who really just doesn’t have the eye to see that or the sensibility to feel that, they’re going to say, “Okay. Here’s a painting of a girl, and here’s a drawing of a girl. They look the same,” and that’s probably what they’ll walk away with. It’s not really my role to educate people. But if a person has the sensibility, or the understanding, or even just has the potential for that understanding, I think that this will allow them to really come in deeper into my world and really understand more.
Do you think your work is beginning to demonstrate the wisdom of old age?
I think so. At least, I hope so. There’s really no way the younger me could have made this work.