Japanese Babies

Yoshitomo Nara blurs the line between fine art and commerical art at the Contemporary

Yoshitomo Nara, the Japanese artist who counts among his celebrity fans Leonard Nimoy and Billy Joe Armstrong, politely declined an interview on the grounds that his English was not strong enough to sustain a conversation without a translator. Nara was also polite enough not to mention that if the interviewer's Japanese extended beyond "domo arigato, Mr. Roboto," a translator would not be needed. Nara's Web site, www.happyhour.jp, is just as impenetrable to the English-speaking Nara-fan, bearing the quiet message, "Sorry, this Web site is Japanese text only."

The language barrier between the American fan and the Japanese artist is more beneficial to appreciating Nara's work than one might realize. Stripped of commentary or explanation, Nara's drawings, sculptures and paintings stand alone in this foreign corner of the imaginary world of cyberspace. Enigmatic phrases are recognizable in the forest of Kanji ("Slash With a Knife," "Why Not Live for Art?" and "Abandoned Puppy"), but they convey no definite meanings. Confusing and somehow ominous, these few recognizable words are no help in understanding Nara on a verbal level, but they transfer the sense of his art. Nara's flat, animation cel-style drawings are totems in a strange landscape; his iconic images of moon-faced children and slightly anthropomorphized animals, cute and adorable in a playful way, also convey an air of menace cut with palpable loneliness.

This undertow of isolation is the familiar terrain of middle-class children everywhere. Himself a latchkey kid, Nara cites his childhood as the major influence on his work. Growing up in the Japanese countryside, Nara spent most of his time alone, falling back on his imagination and his relationship with the family pets to fill the void. The inner plane where children spend their most vital hours is the world Nara plays in now; his art represents both the tranquility of childhood, where nothing ever happens, and the mercurial swing that comes when something finally does happen -- because often, what transpires is not what the child wishes. The friction caused by this phantasmagoric inner world being invaded by the spiky truth of the real world is the heart of Nara's work. All the boredom and loneliness and frustration and displaced anger comes out in one tangled moment, which Nara captures in his images of cherubic girls with flaming hands and tragic animals who complain of shortness of breath.

And so it is little wonder that Nara's art has such broad appeal. Just as he bridges the worlds of children and adults, so too does he move between the often-exclusive worlds of Commercial Art and Fine Art. His solitary child-heroes are particularly well-suited for the mass market of T-shirts and posters and collectible figurines, but the emotional depth that resonates in his work appeals to the galleries and museums as well. Nara's sullen little friends invite everyone to visit them, if only for a little while.