Sotheby’s recently announced their major 20th Century Hong Kong sales, which had been moved to New York in April, are now shifting to the week of July 5 in Hong Kong. The flip-flopping schedule has done little to dampen anticipation for the season’s key lots. Foremost among them are Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s Keep Your Chin Up (2001). Starring a manga-style child-like figure depicted against an open neutral plain, Nara’s portrait depicts a wide emotional range that references political and social unease. Imagined from Japanese graphic books and music influences, Nara’s toy-like protagonists show the sinister side of pop. Often alluding to dark urges – portrayed shielding weapons and masking malice, Nara’s characters have become iconic semblances of modern subversion and introspection. Through this signature style, the multi-media artist has become established as a forerunner of the 1990s Japanese neo-Pop movement. Drawing mass appeal through repeated motifs—comparable to Andy Warhol and Yayoi Kusama—Nara’s works are becoming market drivers.
Sourcing much of his aesthetic from album covers and pop culture, Nara’s pop-punk roots have established him among the vanguard of contemporary cultural critics. Throughout his interdisciplinary practice, rebellion is a key element. His works grasp at the primary feelings of childhood, where frustration and anguish don’t yet have language. This return to childlike emotions among contemporary artists has been labeled “faux naif.” Combining dead-pan pop with Japanese cute culture, Nara’s creations—often with an undertone of anxiety—resonate beyond their local references.
Keep You Chin Up (2001), estimated at HK$18,000,000-28,000,000 ($2.3-3.6M) features his signature girl in profile with an inscrutable tight-lipped expression. The work was made at a seminal time in the artist’s career, just one year after his return to Japan in 2000 following a twelve-year stay in Germany where he studied under Neo-Expressionist painter and sculptor, A.R. Penck. That was in 2001 after his first solo museum show titled “I Don’t Mind If You Forget Me,” at the Yokohama Museum of Art in Japan, galvanized initial interest and eventually lead to a global following. Despite having been consistently prolific since the 1980s, it wasn’t until his first New York show Nobody’s Fool held by Asia Society in 2010 that the American art world caught up.
Nara’s dark pop style has have recently seen a rise at auction. Last October, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong contemporary art evening sale Nara’s Knife Behind Back made in 2000 set the artist’s current auction record at $25M—beating the previous public auction record of $4.5M by a massive margin achieved at Christie’s that same year. These price spikes define an artist’s long-term market value by drawing attention to the artist’s market and providing an indication that the secondary market is hard-pressed to meet demand among a growing base of collectors. Despite Nara’s international renown and extremely high prices, a trove of Nara’s small-scale objects are available in edition sales—including painted vinyl album covers featuring his angry girl motif and embellished skateboard typically offered at a range between $4,000 and $6,000.
Already backed with a vast record of prominent institutional support, Nara’s first international retrospective exhibition formerly slated to open this April and go to the end of August — will debut at LACMA and travel to museums Shanghai’s YUZ Museum, Spain’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and the Kunsthal Rotterdam. One of the highlights chosen for the career-spanning survey is Nara’s Can’t Wait ’til the Night Comes (2012), the artist’s second highest-selling work featuring his devious heroine. The eponymous survey will feature more than 100 works by the artist across various media from his three-decades long career, focused specifically on the crucial impact of music on Nara’s practice. This major institutional recognition coupled with two auction records in 2019 puts Nara’s work at the forefront of contemporary cultural discourse.