erasing clouds

Book Review: Birth and Present: A Studio Portrait of Yoshitomo Nara by Mie Morimoto

by dave heaton

The first page of the book is a photograph of a large, blank canvas resting against a wall, with various buckets and paint containers scattered about on the floor. The book ends in almost the same place, with another blank canvas, this time hanging on a wall. In between are 59 other photos which together depict the cycle of the artist at work, beginning with a blank slate and ending back at the beginning again, with another painting waiting to be created.

But photographer Mie Morimoto's approach to her subject - Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara and his Pop Art-meets-punk-rock-attitude paintings and sculptures of cute and devilish cartoon children - is unconventional. The photos are not a step-by-step look at the artist at work; rather Morimoto closes in on details to give an impression of what's going on. These close-up glimpses illustrate the time process and the emotional journey that comes with creating art better than a chronological portrait would. We see snatches of home within the studio (CDs, clothes, trinkets and necessities), as well as notes Nara tacks to the wall for inspiration ("It's only drawing but I like it!", says one). We observe the artist carefully adjusting, measuring, painting, even as we don't have a sense of what the finished work will look like. Cigarette breaks, cleaning up, pausing to reflect…all of this and more are evident, communicating the moods and the actions that mark the artistic process. We also catch the glances of the artworks themselves, watching over their creator.

Morimoto's striking photographs would be worth reflecting over even if Yoshitomo Nara were an unknown artist and not an international sensation. Her photos have an impeccable sense of space and atmosphere (we are there). And while revealing an artist at work (and detailing what his studio is like - the emphasis in the book's subtitle could be on studio as much as portrait), they leave an ample amount of empty space, in the sense that so much of what's going on is left unseen or obscured. One remarkable photo shows something wrapped completely in plastic. Through the plastic we can barely make out the distinctive shapes of the sort of creatures that Nara so often creates…yet we still can't really tell what's there. All is not clear, even as we've been granted an intimate look. That duplicity gives the photos an even greater impact than if they had just been straightforward (or too-staged) portraits. But for Nara's fans, who might like to know exactly what he's working on, the photos are supplemented with a book-ending section called "Works in Progress," giving notes for each photo, explaining what he's working on and what he's doing. It's like an Answers section to the questions raised by the photos, a way of knowing what the photos suggest is unknowable. Yet it doesn't feel like a cop-out, more like a completion of the portrait, a closing brushstroke that makes the book even more satisfying.

{Gingko Press:}

Issue 20, February 2004

this month's issue
about erasing clouds

Copyright (c) 2005 erasing clouds