Yoshitomo Nara, “Drawing Room between the Concord and the Marrimack,” (2010) (detail, photo by author)

Yoshitomo Nara‘s retrospective Nobody’s Fool at Asia Society is what you would get if art museums loosened up and let themselves have some fun. After climbing the institution’s glassy modern stairs, what greets visitors isn’t a succession of white-walled galleries but a mishmash of wood-walled cubbies and tiny chambers that force participants to kneel down and greet Nara’s drawings, paintings and sculptures on their own terms: close to the floor, like a child exploring a new world. And that’s what Nara’s work is all about: a journey through a world influenced by childhood, small emotions writ large and wonder in hidden corners.

Nara’s childhood was as a latchkey kid, a slightly unfamiliar but awesomely poetic term that denotes a child who is given a key of their own to let themselves into the house after school, a practice necessary because of parents’ long working hours. The artist was left to entertain himself alone at home, an experience that leads directly to Nara’s dreamy, soft-eyed works, drawings that recall a child with paper and crayons, and an infinity of time left, and painted portraits that exude placid, drugged stillness. The quiet solitude of Nara’s work isn’t categorized so easily though.

Yoshitomo Nara, “Hyper Enough (to the City)” (1997) (image from asiasociety.org)

Things get loud when Nara’s love of music comes in. Another escape of the at home alone and lonely, the artist loves the jams, whether it’s old bluesy rock ‘n roll, contemporary shoegaze, or an overlooked singer-songwriter. Lyrics are scribbled everywhere, captioning drawings and shouted out by Nara’s characters. It transported me straight back to my years as a teen laying on the couch at night with headphones, sucked in by music, and titling doodles with lyrics that at the time were the most meaningful things in the world to me. The children of Nara’s world rebel through music, fighting cute with fuck-the-world anthems drawn from punk and pop.

Asia Society lets Nara go a step further with his musical inspirations: the retrospective’s galleries are soundtracked by two mixes made by the artist, one for each floor of the exhibition. The overall effect is exciting, and it suits the vibe in the exhibition perfectly — evoking what I imagine it must be like to hang out in his studio while the works are made. The whole installation is a more intimate experience with an artist than is usually allowed in a museum exhibition, and that informality is so refreshing as to be revolutionary. Everyone else should chill out. Art doesn’t need to appear perfect on a white wall for us to take it seriously.

The influence of the visual language of manga and anime, Japanese comics and animation, is present in the artist’s work, but unlike Takashi Murakami or Chiho Aoshima, Yoshitomo Nara’s work doesn’t boil down to a rehash of digital animation techniques and influences. Though the puppies and kids on view here are cartoony, there’s a handmade quality that reaffirms the hand of the artist rather than downplaying it. Nara displays collections of doodles on gallery stationary, notebook paper and pretty much whatever he can get his hands on. Yes, they’re messy and slapdash, but they’re actually fun to look at. They’re not doodles, they’re finished works, just finished quickly.

Yoshitomo Nara, “Drawing Room between the Concord and the Marrimack” (2010) (photo by author)

Take “Drawing Room,” where Nara’s sketchbook drawings are on display inside a miniature house, a cartoony wooden shelter topped by a witch-hat roof. Visitors ascend to the house via a series of multicolor stages and kneel down to peak in the window on the art collection. Stubs of pencils dot the interior, along with salon-style walls full of doodles. At turns exuberant and fun, it becomes moody, obsessive, and quiet as Nara’s characters shout their slogans, directed at no one in particular and to no particular purpose; just to reaffirm their existence.

The downside to the wonder inspired by Nara’s mercurial art is that it quickly falls apart if the viewer can’t appreciate the visual style, with its cues from cartoon-worlds, or fails to take the artist seriously. Yes, these paintings of middle-finger-raised 5-year-old punks are meant to be taken without irony. Yes, the artist’s dog sculptures might look like Clifford the Big Red Dog on downers, but their silence and reticence — how they feel — is more important than their visual sources. So come with an open mind and leave with a full heart and maybe a band or two to look up.

An iPhone app is available to accompany the exhibition, but at $2.99 per download it didn’t seem worth it. Tip to Asia Society: make those Nara mixes available for streaming, please.

Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool is on view at Asia Society through January 2, 2011

CORRECTION: The playlists created by the artist are not actually being played in the exhibition space, but there is some kind of soundtrack. We’ll let you know when we figure out what the tunes are!

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly, Kill Screen, Creators...