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No Place Like Chrome: Beyond cute, Yoshitomo Nara's children are precocious punk-rock rebels.

Little Triggers

Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara's images of precocious, punk-rock children disturb and disrupt our dreams of innocence

By Sharon Mizota

Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
Talking Heads, 1979

TO ADULTS, childhood seems like an idyllic existence free from worry and care, but to children, nothing happens fast enough. Trapped in a continual state of restless waiting, they squirm furtively at the dinner table or kick the back of your movie seat. Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara's depictions of precocious children and benevolent dogs present childhood as a paradox of perfection and boredom. Suspended in a state of arrested development, his figures are caught somewhere between nostalgic innocence and youthful impatience.

"Nothing Ever Happens" is an apt title for the new exhibition of Nara's paintings, drawings and sculpture at the San Jose Museum of Art. The show, which opens July 24, is his first retrospective in Northern California. The title sounds like a complaint, but it captures both the peaceful, rounded perfection of his art and the latent boredom and frustration roiling just beneath its smooth surfaces.

Nara's children, with their oversized heads, milk-saucer eyes and blunt, pawlike limbs, look infantile and defenseless, but far from innocent. They sneak sidelong glances and grimace knowingly, hinting at some secret transgression or imagined subversion. Some even smoke cigarettes or wield tiny knives. Nara's kids may be up to no good, but they never look guilty. Their faces, at first placid and cute, betray an indignant, yet impotent anger.

This vision of childhood takes many different forms, from the ephemeral to the monumental. The sketch drawings show Nara at his most raw and immediate. Scrawled on envelopes, fliers or whatever scraps of paper happen to be lying around, the figures are little more than crude outlines and hastily filled-in areas of color. Their angry energy is reflected in the quickness and urgency of the drawing (as well as in their expletive-laden speech in word balloons). You can see Nara's hand and mind at work, giving shape to a free-flowing flood of ideas and emotions.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are his three-dimensional works. Your Dog is a huge, fiberglass sculpture of a placid, Snoopyesque canine. Smooth and pure white (except for his red nose), Your Dog represents a Platonic ideal of dogness, evoking permanence, stability and the comfort of an eternal "welcome home."

Similarly, the figures in Nara's paintings evoke the solidity and stillness of a Renaissance Madonna. Isolated against flat areas of pastel color, they are iconic and utterly self-possessed.

In Little Ramona, a girl with shoulder-length brown hair stands in the center of a solid, off-white disk. Her short dress with its too-long sleeves is unmistakably infantile, but the malevolent glare of her bright green eyes and the snarling, down-turned slash of her mouth convey steely resentment.

Named in homage to the legendary New York punk band the Ramones, Ramona is a recurring character in Nara's work and heir to the band's lawless attitude. Although Nara has clothed that rebellion in a baby-doll dress and placed it at the center of an oversized collector's plate, the underlying tone of defiance is undeniable.

By employing a format that resembles the kitschiest of all consumer goods—the commemorative plate—Nara suggests that fine art is just a larger, more expensive version of commercial products. And Nara's characters are just as likely to appear on a key chain or an ashtray as in a gallery or museum. This foray into consumer culture has helped him win an enthusiastic cult following, not only in Japan, but also in the United States and Europe. T-shirts emblazoned with his images have even appeared on the TV shows Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The Cult of Cute

Born in 1959, Nara is part of a generation of Japanese "New Pop" artists who first rose to prominence in the mid-'90s. An attempt to define a modern, uniquely Japanese aesthetic, New Pop is characterized by flat colors, crisp lines and irreverent subject matter.

The movement employs the style and vocabulary of contemporary pop culture in order to both critique and celebrate it. Prominent New Pop artist Takashi Murakami has dubbed this aesthetic "Superflat," referring not only to the traditional flatness of Japanese drawing and animation (as compared to the historical fascination with 3-D perspective in Western art), but to the collapsing of hierarchies between fine art and commerce.

Murakami's studio, Hiropon Factory, churns out paintings, sculptures, toys and T-shirts at an astounding pace. And if you thought those rainbow-hued Louis Vuitton handbags were cheap imitations, think again: Murakami's latest creation has become a high-priced must-have among fashionistas everywhere.

But rather than examining or creating current trends, Nara's work mines the pop culture of his childhood. Growing up in Aomori Prefecture, he was a latchkey kid whose childhood companions were most often pets and the television. It's no wonder then that Nara's figures are usually alone, and that their bodies resemble the simple, rounded forms of early, animated classics like Astro Boy and Speed Racer more than the sleek, angular look of contemporary anime.

Although they recall his own youth, Nara's images subvert conventional depictions of childhood as happy, simple and carefree. In the context of Japanese pop culture, they can also be seen as a critique of the extreme idealization of childhood known as kawaii. Kawaii is popularly used to describe anything cute, sweet and childlike. Exemplified by characters such as Hello Kitty and Pokemon, the cult of kawaii is commonly understood as a reaction to the extreme pressures that accompany adult life in Japan: a demanding school system, inflexible workplace hierarchies and highly conventional expectations for behavior and comportment.

Kawaii, along with more violent fantasies such as those played out in pornographic or sadistic manga (comic books), operates as a pressure valve. Idealized notions of childhood offer a small, nostalgic escape from the restrictions of adulthood.

The kawaii phenomenon is especially poignant (or perhaps just a sign of denial) in a society in which children are "growing up" faster than ever. The practice of enjo kosai, or casual teenage prostitution, received widespread media attention in the '90s. Brutal attacks and murders by children are also on the rise. In June, an 11-year-old girl lured a fellow student to an empty classroom and killed her with a box cutter.

In light of such tragedies, Nara's angry-yet-cute kids don't seem so far-fetched. By combining the visual language of kawaii—extra-large-sized heads, bulbous bodies and ineffectual limbs—with a seething and barely suppressed rage, his images both offer and deny escape. Despite their cartoonish quality, they embody an unpleasant truth: childhood is not the innocent, perfect playground we like to envision, but a hotbed of resentment and frustration.

Thank Heaven for Little Girls

Although Nara's work may be a subversion of kawaii, it's far from reactionary. Rather than advocate an acceptance of the repressive structures of adult life, it forces us to re-examine our received notions about childhood. It brings us face to face with our own dissatisfactions and invites us to identify with the righteous fury of a youthful rebellion we may have long ago abandoned.

Most of Nara's characters are girls, or at least are presented in the conventional trappings of girlhood: longish hair and shortish dresses (no one wears pants). From a feminist perspective, their resentment makes sense. It's as if they're preternaturally aware of the inequities and biases they will face as women.

But unlike most heroes in the West, who are usually male, the heroes of Japanese pop culture are just as likely to be female. The popular work of filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), whose preteen heroes are almost invariably female, as well as the prevalence of female superheroes throughout anime and manga suggest that traits coded as "feminine" are valued and celebrated slightly differently in Japan than in the West.

In her writing on postwar Japanese art, author Midori Matsui traces a trend dating from the Meiji era (1868-1912), when Japan first began its course of modernization. Because modernization was so rapid and so closely modeled on Western examples, Matsui argues that a cultural crisis ensued. Since there were no longer any clear definitions of Japanese-ness, artists sought to resuscitate Japanese traditions that had been lost or suppressed in the rush to adopt Western ways.

Chief among these was a tradition of open sensuality and strong ties to the natural world. In the Westernized, modern culture that now dominates Japanese society, these concerns are often devalued as "feminine." Not surprisingly, they have found their strongest expressions in pop and underground culture, emerging at two polar extremes: an idealized, squeaky-clean youth (kawaii) and intensely graphic depictions of violence and sex.

Nara's work finds itself at the intersection of kawaii and this explosive violence. Like the image of the lascivious schoolgirl, his images subvert expectations. They give voice to a repressed impulse, a latent anger always just about to bubble over, yet contained.

For despite their menacing faces and defiant stares, Nara's figures are anything but threatening. Even if they were to lash out in violence, their attack would most likely be in vain. They are little balls of fury with no outlet, no impact. As such, they are saucy emblems of a Japanese culture contained, but not quite extinguished by Western modernity.

Minimal Criminal

Although Nara has created work with obvious references to traditional Japanese art—Ukiyo, a book of drawings playing with motifs from Japanese woodblock prints was published in 1999—he rarely references Japanese cultural traditions directly.

The current exhibition includes a group of fiberglass sculptures with a subtle resemblance to Japanese Kabuki masks. In three-dimensional versions of the heads of typical Nara children, some wear colorful headgear with the ears of cats or bunnies or other indeterminate species.

Although the child-as-animal recurs throughout Nara's work, here it takes on an air of theatricality. The masks' stark white skin and clean lines further evoke the Kabuki aesthetic. By blending classical Japanese art forms with his modern vocabulary of disgruntled tots, Nara sketches a tenuous, yet pointed alignment of traditional Japanese culture and contemporary discontent.

But the meaning of Nara's work is not confined to its place within Japanese culture and history. Educated in Japan and Germany, Nara is resolutely an international artist. His works often contain writing and references in German, Japanese and English. He counts among his influences not only Japanese pop culture but also strains as diverse as Renaissance painting, punk rock and minimalism.

From his essentially Western art education in Japan, Nara cites Giotto's Arena Chapel frescoes as an important influence. Like Giotto's masterwork, Nara's paintings feature muted color schemes, and solid, static figures in a flat, shallow space. They possess a stillness and dignity that evokes an almost religious feeling. In a sense, Nara's work elevates children to a revered, iconic status.

Despite its pop-culture focus, Nara's art also displays affinities with Minimalism. The backgrounds of his paintings are solid fields of color, often textured with pieces of canvas that have been glued on in a patchwork pattern and painted over. These surfaces reflect a concern with the physical presence of the work: more than just an image, it is an object to be reckoned with.

His sculptures take this hallmark of minimalism one step further. Their simple, mostly white-on-white details reduce description to a bare minimum. They form a continuum with the whiteness of the gallery, extending their world into the viewer's space.

In addition to his "Superflat" colleagues in Japan, Nara is also part of a generation of Western artists engaged with pop culture, graffiti and urban counterculture. Reminiscent of Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, these artists operate in multiple spheres, appealing to different, widespread audiences.

Like Nara, Canadian art collective Royal Art Lodge employs stream-of-consciousness drawing techniques to create recurring characters laced with comic book and television references. They then develop these characters further in video and sculptural works. San Francisco installation and graffiti artist Barry McGee (a.k.a. Twist) employs similar strategies to Nara's in taking a counterculture stance while maintaining his presence in museums and galleries. Although McGee has been indoctrinated into the art world, he still works on the streets and has managed to bring issues of urban isolation and decay into a "high art" setting.

Many of these artists have been influenced by the cultural revolutions charted by musical movements. In the late '70s, punk became an international rallying cry for disaffected youth and constituted a formative influence on the prevalent attitudes and postures expressed in Nara's work. As rock critic Josh Kun describes in the exhibition catalog for "Nothing Ever Happens," the aesthetics and attitude of punk appeal to Nara because they offer an alternative vision: they express a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the status quo and agitate for something else.

But first-generation punks like Sid Vicious and John Doe (also a contributor to the catalog) either didn't live long enough or never actually found that "something else." Unlike the idealism of the early punk movement, Nara's work inhabits a world in which rebellion has become just another style; its rage and fury transformed into a savvy marketing ploy. Still, pieces like Sprout the Ambassador display wisps of hope. A girl, despite the grumpy scowl on her face, holds a tiny green sprout in each hand. Something young and new and green persists, in the midst of frustration.

Floating World: Nara's 'Sheep From Your Dream' nags at our notion of cute.

Inner Child

This "softer" side of Nara's work is also apparent in a body of work he produced in Afghanistan in the fall of 2002. Nara and photographer Rinko Kawauchi published a series of their photographs and drawings titled No War, in an issue of Foil, a Japanese photography magazine. (Unfortunately, these images do not appear in the current exhibition.)

Although the majority of Nara's contributions are photographs of children, most of the drawings he produced are markedly different from his studio work. Gone are the sly glances and knowing smiles. Whereas the artist's typical cast of characters seem closed and a little defensive, his drawings of Afghan children manage to be tender, without being maudlin. Their eyes are dark and round, their poses more vulnerable than defiant. Similarly, his photographs capture their irrepressible spirit and energy.

Like his early photographs of Japanese youth, these images reflect Nara's healthy respect for children in all their complexity. They are not just visions of a former self or inhabitants of some idealized fantasy world. As writer Idwal Jones decrees: "Children are not the young of the human race. They are of a race apart, and have different and very intense feelings."

In this sense, Nara's world is not unlike that of Charles Schultz's Peanuts, the long-running comic strip that spawned a media and merchandising empire. Both universes are practically devoid of adult influence and focus intently on the tribulations of childhood. Both are presided over by friendly dogs and dominated by girls. Although Peanuts' Charlie Brown is a male protagonist, the strongest and most confident characters—Lucy and Peppermint Patty—are female.

And like Peanuts, the Nara-verse is on its way to commercial ubiquity. In addition to his museum and gallery exhibits, Nara licenses his imagery for reproduction on T-shirts, ashtrays, dolls and key chains. Contrary to its anti-establishment roots, his punk aesthetic wholeheartedly embraces capitalism. He may be a sell-out, but he's also a democratizer. Most of the young people who admire Nara's work will never be able to afford a museum piece. But thanks to licensing and commercial distribution, they can purchase their own little Naras. And, as if in grateful response, Nara's fans have literally made his creations their own, sending him homemade, stuffed-animal versions of his many characters.

Nara taps not only a particular sense of Japanese cultural disempowerment but also a universal sentiment. As our world gets smaller and smaller and is owned and operated by fewer and larger corporations, we can all understand and identify with an inescapable feeling of disenfranchisement. Nara has distilled this experience down to its essence: the angry, powerless, yet hopeful child in all of us.

Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens runs Jul 24-Oct. 31 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 Market St., San Jose. Nara appears July 25, 6pm, for 'It's Only Art, But I Like It,' a conversation with rock critic Josh Kun and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. Tickets are $30/$40. (408.294.2787)

Sharon Mizota is co-author of 'Fresh Talk/Daring Gazes: Conversations on Asian American Art.'

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From the July 21-27, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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