Can we make this about me rather than about Yoshitomo Nara? The diffident, eternally adolescent Japanese Neo-Pop art star is already the favorite of bigfoot collectors and teen girls worldwide, and the subject of the first hot art show of the fall season, "Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool" at the Asia Society Museum, so he hardly needs this puny little text to be about him.
Art is always about the viewer, of course, and this is especially true with Nara, whose exquisite cartoon images of grumpy little girls and sleepy doggies pierce right through to the hearts of his many fans. When I made some paintings of kittens back in 1980 -- this is the part that is about me -- one was exhibited in "The Beast" at P.S.1 in 1982 (curated by the brilliant Richard Flood), and another hung above the Max Fisch bar on Ludlow Street for many years -- I realized that the pictures were guaranteed to elicit a chorus of sighs of affection and ahhs of approval from at least 50 percent of the audience (the cat-loving half, of course). It was a hard-wired reaction.
At the time I suppose I was amused by the notion that "authenticity" could be found in biology and evolution or whatever, but now with Nara’s work what seems important is its expressivity, of all things. His cartoons really do reach out to his audience and take them on a little emotional rollercoaster ride back into toddlerhood. Nara’s art regresses you, if you let it. He’s an Emo artist for a mean world, and people like it like Matisse liked his armchair.
Nara’s work regressed me very quickly to early on in my elementary school days, when I first remember being celebrated as the kid in the class who could draw (first and last, I should say). My specialty was frieze-like high-noon showdowns, with the bad guy facing off against the sheriff in the middle of the street. With the creative illogic of a kid, I would put the "good stuff" -- the sheriff’s star and the bad guy’s black bandanna -- on both characters. This kind of brilliant kid styling is key to Nara’s art, giving it its individual peculiarities, like the angry eyes and sad little smiles.
Other things can be said about "Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool": it’s about Nara’s love of Pop music, and the press kit includes a nice playlist he made of early ‘60s British rock; it includes several large installations that seem designed to fill the space, and a few early ‘80s works that suggest Nara started out with Neo-Expressionism; and it proves that though cartoonish, Nara’s pictures can have a perfect verve, and can also be beautifully, lovingly done, like they were Rothkos or some such. But then that would make this review about him, instead of about me.
"Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool," Sept. 9, 2010-Jan. 2, 2011, at Asia Society Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.