Contemporary Japanese Artists That Have Been Revitalizing The Art World

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Japanese contemporary artists have become major players in the art world, selling out shows, reinventing techniques and amassing a cult following of die hard art fans, here are 5 of our favorites.

Yoshitomo Nara

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Yoshitomo Nara is one of those artists that have reached a cult-like status, with his motifs and figures being instantly recognizable across the globe.

Nara is the father of the Tokyo Pop movement; a creative awakening that took place post-World War II in Japan alongside the economic boom and the influx of popular culture from the western world (namely contributions by Warner Brothers and Disney).

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Nara was born and raised in a rural area of Japan in a working class family. As his parents were laboriously attending to their respective jobs, Nara spent a lot of time with only his imagination, comic books and pets as company.

When examining his work, it is clear that Nara was heavily inspired by manga imagery, with his wide-eyed and cute children taking center stage, yet his work has an underlying current of doom and discomfort.

His paintings and drawings have a childlike simplicity to them that is reminiscent of storybook illustrations.

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Upon first glance, Nara’s paintings and drawings display deceptively simple subject matter than appears innocuous.

The children are adorable and vulnerable when you hastily glance at them, yet upon further inspection, you see that they are not only irritated but also in some cases are brandishing weapons like knives and saws.

Their enormous eyes are filled with frustration, as if they were just hastily awoken from a nap.

Nara has attempted to capture this childhood sense of boredom and frustration, and recapture and encapsulate the fierce independence children exude when they are in their pivotal developmental stages.

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Nara has gone on the record many times to talk about his obsession with punk rock—this certainly makes sense when observing his pieces, for there is a strong anarchic point of view, with imbued restlessness and pervading tension.

His works are both raw and composed, immediately revealing Nara’s youthful rebellious streak. In fact, the juxtaposition of human evil with the innocent child may be Nara’s commentary on Japan’s rigid social conventions.

Regardless, his legacy will go down in art history for his trademarked children with all-enveloping piercing gazes.

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Takashi Murakami

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Murakami is one of those artists that are instantly recognized by just his surname—often, there is no further explanation needed.

He is an undeniably acclaimed artist that emerged from the postwar era in Japan, and has changed the way we look at art from the East with his synthesis of fine art and popular culture.

His work is boldly graphic, colorfully anime, and manga style cartoon-like. Murakami is obsessed with contrasts, often showcasing high versus low, ancient versus modern, East versus West—he understands the borders between worlds and knows how to navigate them.

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Murakami refers to his work as being superflat, which is the disregarding of western perspective techniques and drawing of Japanese popular culture, animation and fine art.

What we are left with is a pop art explosion within a two-dimensional representational plane. We see his familiar tropes of cute, colorful cartoon mushrooms, monsters, skulls, flowers—yet, they are all a commentary on Japan’s culture of consumerism and fantasy.

Utopia, dystopia, transcendence and enlightenment flood our vision and overwhelm our senses.

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Murakami is a critical observer of contemporary Japanese society, and truly shaped the Western world’s perception of Japanese art.

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Check out our coverage of Murakami at the Gagosian Gallery New York


Hisashi Tenmyouya

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Tenmyouya describes his art as neo-nihonga, which literally translates to “new-Japanese style.”

He is drawn to the confrontational fusion of traditional Japanese artistic techniques and modern cultural references. Ultimately, he revives traditional Japanese paintings as contemporary art.

Neo-nihonga employs newer materials (such as acrylic paint), which focusing on traditional Japanese art historical features (such as decorative symbols).

He incorporates genre motifs of contemporary society and street style rather seamlessly, rendering these grand paintings that maintain an undeniable traditional essence.

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Chiho Aoshima

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Aoshima is part of Murakami’s KaiKai Kiki collective, an art production and artist management company started by Murakami.

Having never formally studied art before, Aoshima actually began her artistic career as an assistant in Murakami’s studio.

As a result of the techniques used during her stay there, Aoshima also champions the superflat aesthetic that Murakami is known for—well-defined lines places within a single plane of depth.

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Her works include surreal dreamscapes, one of which was displayed as part of a 2008 installation on a disused area of London’s Gloucester Road tube station.

The seventeen platform arches each displayed part of an elaborate landscape composition, which gradually changed from day to night and urban to rural. This piece suggests a utopian vision of the Earth, which is at the core of Aoshima’s practice.

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In her world, time has no weight and past and present have merged. We see fantastical urban pop creatures and landscapes that often include ghosts, demons, nature and young women. A dreamy teenage perspective always runs through Aoshima’s paintings, like a true stream of consciousness interwoven with a gloriously entrancing imagination.

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The organic world blends with the man made, leaving us to wonder whether her images could perhaps resonate more truthfully in the future. We see a world that embraces all possibilities.

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Keiko Matsumoto

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Matsumoto studied ceramics at Kyoto City University, then proceeded to become an instructor at a ceramics studio in Kyoto.

Currently, she is an artist-in-residence at the University of Arts in Philadelphia. The works blur the already indistinct line between the disciplines of fine art and traditional craftsmanship by creating utilitarian vessels (usually pottery) that are entirely decorative.

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Matsumoto’s pieces are manufactured playing on the double concept within them of ‘craft’ and ‘fine art’ that has been wrapped up in Japanese culture forever.

She makes the vessel the object of her art, considering it a utilitarian form, and transforms it into something entirely decorated and embellished.

These objects, useful by nature, transcend their normal roles and become purely decorative.

They still refer to tradition with their themes, and are literally patterned with stereotypical oriental subjects, including pagodas, Japanese fans, store lanterns, bamboo and cranes. Matsumoto truly breaks the usual shape of things and allows the motif to break free of the vessel.

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