Review: Yoshitomo Nara takes haunting look at children’s inner lives

The dark side of childhood may not be something adults like to think about. But it takes haunting shape in Yoshitomo Nara’s wide-ranging exhibition at Blum & Poe, its presence all the more potent for being subdued.

In 11 new paintings, 10 recent sculptures and more than 200 drawings made over the last 30 years, Nara treats children as complex creatures whose inner lives are as rich as anyone’s and far more mysterious than adults usually treat them.

The 54-year-old artist’s bronze sculptures are big lumpy heads. From the back they resemble primitive mounds or massive sand castles whose details have been washed away by the surf. From the front, it’s clear that they’re kids, mostly girls but some sufficiently ambiguous to render such judgments difficult.

That ambiguity is what Nara’s heads are all about. At once tender and implacable, charming and stoic, each brings the mysteriousness of the Sphinx into focus, an enigma all the more unsettling for its intimacy.

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Nara’s paintings, of somber girls staring straight ahead or joylessly playing guitars, make childhood appear to be a detested piano lesson that never ends. Hardly the stuff of adult fantasies.

Upstairs, the 30-year survey of drawings reveals that Nara is not the type of artist whose work develops steadily, incrementally inching toward a goal. His métier is the epiphany—a sudden, everything-falls-into-place approach that either nails it perfectly or misses the mark.

The earliest drawings, from 1984-1992, show a young artist experimenting—casting about, trying things out, discarding moves that are not yet his own. Once Nara discovered his signature style—of nuanced cartoons—he never looked back.

All of his drawings and most of his paintings have an all-or-nothing absoluteness, a whiplash intensity of spot-on precision. His sculptures are different. Slow burns, they stick with you like an undercurrent of bass notes.

Blum & Poe, 2727 S. La Cienega Blvd., (310) 836-2062, through April 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays.