As the calendar changed to December in 1959, the residents of northern Japan’s Tōhoku region surely prepared for the approaching winter by bracing themselves against the severely cold-filled air and heavily snow-blanketed ground. Thus was the atmosphere when a baby named Yoshitomo Nara was born to the small town of Hirosaki, a creative child whose rural-upbringing was slated to be devoid of like-minded interactions. Satisfied to have one-sided conversations with nature — through animals and trees — Nara’s imagination would be sparked by imported record covers, the non-English speaking teenager crafting meaning in the songs that fit the artwork’s tale. And perhaps it was this adeptness at storytelling that led Nara to express himself through visuals, to become an artist. Though known for this cartoonishly big-eyed, adolescent girl characters — their emotive visages convey everything from aloofness to contempt, timidity to anger — there are other iconic, reoccurring images in Nara’s oeuvre, such as the Lonesome Puppy (or Dog from Your Childhood) and the Cup Kids, two motifs that merged in 2003 to form the PupCup.

Yoshitomo Nara’s PupCup

Inspired by the fabricated works of Richard Serra and Donald Judd, Philadelphian Larry Mangel’s Cerealart company embarked into producing factory-made art objects around 2002, their list of early successes including Nara’s PupCup sculptural edition. Residing in a bowl of ice-blue “liquid” is a childlike rendition of “man’s best friend,” this Lonesome Puppy concept purportedly inspired by the artist’s own failed attempts during childhood to adopt a stray dog. Arguably seen as a “spiritual self-portrait,” this canine form’s PupCup evolution allows it to twirl and spin into life, the kinetic sculpture “dancing” to delight its audience. But for all the joy its presence can bring, an intrinsically Nara-like sense of solitude and vulnerability emote from the composition. Eyes shut, the PupCup blindly moves for your amusement, its cup-shaped container forever alienating it from the world, keeping it sheltered from everything around it. And perhaps that addition makes the PupCup into the truest “spiritual self-portrait” of Nara yet: a man who brings joy through his art but can never truly forget the isolation of his youth.

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