Yoshitomo Nara at Asia Society: A Different Breed of Elf
It’s winter wonderland time in New York, when fir trees sprout along Park Avenue, entire buildings gift-wrap themselves, and the traffic between Grand Central Station and the American Girl store comes to a grinding halt. For those in search of respite, there is no better antidote than the Yoshitomo Nara show currently at Asia Society, where the elfish children on display through January 2 are more naughty than nice.
I visited last week with two 7-year-old imps who immediately recognized a kindred spirit at work. The first major New York exhibition of one of Japan’s most prominent Neo Pop artists includes drawings, paintings, sculpture, and ceramics in whimsical playhouse installations that had my son David and his friend Brendan grinning in incredulous delight. This was a museum?
Entitled “Nobody’s Fool” and representing the arc of Nara’s career with over a hundred works, the show includes plenty of his trademark creepy-cute kids and marshmallow-smooth dogs. But it moves beyond the iconic as well, revealing the influence on Nara’s art of bands from the Ramones to Green Day, and exploring themes of helplessness, solitude, rebellion, and the meaning of home.
Nara’s own handpicked playlist fills the top two floors of Asia Society with unaccustomed raucousness. The walls of one gallery are papered with his favorite album covers, and (once I had explained what a record was) the boys spent some time peering at the graphics and even recognizing a couple of names from their dinosaur parents’ CD racks. In the center of the room stand oversized gourd-shaped vases, glazed in black and white with scrawled messages and strange faces. What were they for? the boys asked. What did they think? I countered. “Water?” they ventured. “Frogs?” said David. “I know—silly bands!”
Another installation features a tiny house glowing from within, through the windows of which they peered at an artist’s workspace, complete with stubby pencils and rough drawings of fierce little girls. Surrounding the house were pinwheel-painted pedestals, perfect for jumping atop and playing air guitar, which, if you are under 12, you are allowed to do. (They did.)
There are many windows to peep through, as well as doors to open and tiny interiors to duck into. David and Brendan spent the most time in Untitled (formerly Home) a cozy little house with calico curtains, a pile of patchwork pillows to lounge on, and a looping slideshow of photos from Nara’s travels: children, animals, landscapes urban and rural, everything suffused with something like nostalgia, punk rock replaced by folk. The boys curled up and gazed, completely relaxed, as older visitors stepped around them and smiled.
The sweetness has an acid edge, though—works like The Girl with the Knife in her Hand (1991) are perfect exemplars of what’s called kowa kawaii in Japan: scary adorable. Having spent a lonely youth in northern Japan, Nara speaks to the unease of childhood, tipping quickly into fear or rage. The melon-slice eyes of his figures contain everything from mischief to anger to mesmerizing malice. It’s hard to look away. “She looks mean,” said Brendan, skipping off with David to read the song lyrics written around the edges of other pictures.
So if you feel queasy when you hear sleigh bells jingling-ring-ting-tingling in the supermarket aisles, head for the odd little world Nara has created on the Upper East Side. And bring your own elves.
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