“Who is this man? Who is he to have become an artist whose works are worth millions and command such attention? And, is this an exhibition worth the wait?”
Sources say that Nara was born on March 24th, 1959, in Gifu Prefecture. His parents were farmers and he expressed a passion for art at an early age. Because there was no school available nearby to teach him painting or drawing techniques, his father made one by making molds of his hands and filling them with clay. Then, he stuck a nail in the wall and the young Nara followed suit by wrapping each hand around it. This was a critical moment for him as an artist because it was when he first realized the thrill of making art (or what we would call today creating 3-D objects rather than just a 2-D representations of what he saw).
After graduating from junior high school and having shown promise as a student, Nara was sent to Tokyo in the hope that he would study hard and become a doctor or an engineer. However, shortly after his arrival in 1977, Japan was hit by one of its frequent economic downturns which devastated the nation’s economy. Unable to find work, Nara enrolled in free art classes at the Tsukiji School of Art , a branch of Tokyo Polytechnic University . Rather than studying drawing and painting techniques that appealed to his interests in realism and international figurative artists such as Picasso, Rembrandt and Michelangelo, he soon gravitated towards avant-garde happenings organized by performance artist Tatsumi Hijikata and his dance troupe, “Kurogane”. He started to embrace the unconventional world of body art and ended up spending much of his time in Paris. According to Nara, he felt like an alien on two occasions while living in France.
While living in Paris, Nara was considerably influenced by Jean-Michel Basquiat whom he met at the seminal Tokyo art exhibition that also introduced Japan to Pollock’s drip paintings and Warhol’s Soup Cans. He moved back home in 1983 and while searching for his way as an artist, came across Tetsumi Kudo’s work which led him to the “Superflat” school of art, a movement that started in Japan and was also championed by Takashi Murakami. The fact that he became associated with Superflat had lasting consequences for his career as an artist, but also presented Nara with a paradoxical predicament: on one hand, its critics say it is not “Japanese” enough while on the other hand, Nara was criticized for being too “Japanese”, that his art did not sufficiently incorporate foreign influences or techniques.
The paradox of Superflat is most apparent in Nara’s series featuring bunnies which are made by piling up layers of flat ink on paper and spray-painting surfaces with a thin translucent lacquer. His bunnies are the results of what he calls “a failed attempt at imitating a Western concept”, which is in essence a reflection of how Superflat artists incorporated Japanese motifs, themes and techniques into their art while retaining some degree of “foreign” influence.
Nara’s exhibit at LACMA included paintings, sculptures and drawings of which the earliest piece dates back to 1984. Many of the works are painted in an ink wash style of various shades of black with white accents that lend a sense of contrast and drama to his work. Unlike some other contemporary Japanese artists who have been accused by critics as belonging to what is known as “manga art“, Nara’s work is unambiguously dark and disturbing.
Indeed, one painting that is representative of his early works while he was still heavily influenced by Basquiat depicts a distorted, bleeding human fetus with a noose around its neck. Other paintings also feature deformed creatures as well as naked children in strange settings such as graveyards.