Yoshitomo Nara is one of my favorite artists - not just because of the visual style of his pieces, but because of the personality he puts inside them. When I went to Japan earlier this year, I picked up a wonderful book on his works and was pretty surprised to see how deep they went into his personality. Nearly all of his pieces are self-portraits - telling a story of a part of his life that existed at one time or another. And while the emotional cues of his works can be hard to get in exact words, to me they always come somewhere between happiness, guilt, melancholy, and longing for attention.
Portraits of people have this strange ability to portray a life story of one place in time. If done well, you can start to imagine the feelings and experiences the subject has been through or lived at one time. And even if the subjects are fictional, like Yoshitomo’s, you can get a sense of the painter or photographer that created it. It becomes a self-portrait.
Like the themes of many of Yoshitomo’s paintings, I grew up feeling like I had to hide my emotions in public. And sometimes, these emotions would explode because I felt like I had no one to talk to. Whenever I look at his paintings, I feel a rush back to my childhood memories where my imaginations ran wild, but I felt like I had to contain them all. I was often afraid of what people thought, so I had the impression from many people that I was just a quiet person by nature.
When I was comfortable with the people around me or the place that I was in, I was really far from it. I remember hours and hours playing and imagining all kinds of stuff - from movies to sci-fi inventions and designing crazy buildings. So I’d act out, draw, or build things out of whatever I found around my house. For a time, I felt like I had my own place for my ideas and I wasn’t afraid of what people thought. As I got older though, the balance tipped. I got more concerned about what other people thought of my ideas, and I got afraid to express them as time went on. I stopped playing and building for awhile - that’s just what kids do, right?
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how things have changed since my childhood. While the world is more complex than you can understand when you’re younger, I think it’s really important to hold on to the experimental, playful part. Because it’s so easy to forget and dismiss, that it’s in the dullest of moments where regaining a sense of that can help. I’ve tried to be really aware of that, and I’ve probably played with ideas and built more things in the last 6 months than I have in years.
Every time I feel like I’m losing touch with that side, I try to remember how Yoshitomo’s paintings are made. First, with a playful splash of colors - slightly structured, but rough and natural. Then some outlines, with more colors to start the structure of a face and some features. Eventually, we see a defined face, but it’s still soft and glowing - as if it’s powered by the energy of the first few layers of paint.