What Is Nostalgic Art?
Blending high and low influences, nostalgic art is often a humorous look back on much-loved memorabilia of the past. From teddy bears to balloon animals to fun figurines, these artists turn to their childhood memories and collective nostalgic memory for inspiration.
On the surface, these fun artworks may seem humorous and lighthearted, but often they carry a deeper meaning. Often for artists like KAWS or Whatshisname, within this nostalgic joy lies an undertone of criticism towards Contemporary Art and pop culture.
Whether it is a criticism of commercialism, as in KAWS’ art, or celebrity culture and consumerism, like Jeff Koons, these childhood-inspired artworks often hide something slightly more severe under the surface.
How Does Nostalgic Art Fit Into Contemporary Art?
In the scope of Contemporary Art, the use of nostalgic figures is seen as a motif and strategy for artists to evoke their message to audiences.
The first glimpse of nostalgia in contemporary art is during the Pop Art movement. Andy Warhol initiated most of his career moves about six decades ago, he appropriated everyday items into fine art, like soup cans and brillo pads.
The appropriation of everyday household items blended the lines between high and low art and created a subliminal and easily digestible way to convey Warhol’s commentary on American consumerism. This kind of methodology had many followers in the Pop Art movement, such as Claes Oldenburg and Sir Peter Blake.
The appropriation we see in examples of their work are reflective of not just daily, commercial items but also significant figures and characters of modern day pop culture and entertainment.
KAWS and Nostalgic Art
KAWS isn’t a Pop Artist, exactly, except by way of distant ancestry. He takes it a step further.
Brian Donnelly’s statues and figurines swing between fine art crossed with low art and pop culture references. This approach could be attributed to his success on both the primary and secondary market, with many paintings and figurines selling for record prices at auction.
KAWS is also one of the few artists that takes advantage of his success in the commercial space with his more affordable collaboration works.
The artist will create specific, limited edition designs that will be used with companies like Uniqlo, Dior and Nike, blurring the line of fine art and commerce even more. Is this the future of contemporary art or just the new wave of kitsch?
KAWS Characters Take Us Back
The ultimate source of this feeling of nostalgia is through his signature characters and pop culture references through them.
By far the most famous of KAWS posse is Companion.
Originally commissioned by streetwear brand Bounty Hunter in 1999, the figurine turned muse became one of KAWS’ most pivotal pieces.
Companion was modeled off of a familiar character of childhood, Mickey Mouse. KAWS added his own flare to the creature by providing a monotone color palette, replacing the eyes with Xs and adding a similar pattern on the gloved hands.
KAWS’ Companion has since been adapted to a number of variations, including dissecting and parodying other figures of childhood animations like Astro Boy and Elmo.
Another key figure found throughout KAWS’ work is the reinterpretation of the Michelin Man, known as Chum.
Chum entered the scene around the same period as Companion in the late 1990s.
The Kimpsons is a series by KAWS that subverted The Simpsons cartoon with his signature KAWS motifs of X on the eyes. The series contains KAWS’ first formal painting on canvas.
This series is also one of the most lucrative pieces for the artists, leading the artist to continue the practice of appropriation of favored television and nostalgic characters such as Sesame Street and the Smurfs.
Takashi Murakami and Nostalgic Art
When thinking of contemporary pop art and nostalgia, Takashi Murikami comes to mind. The Japanese artist is known for his colorful array of friendly, familiar, anime-inspired and illustrative characters and scenes.
Murikami also took it a step further when transcending off the canvas and into the metaverse, creating an interpretation of his pixelated flowers in the entirely digital space.
The artist takes extensive inspiration from okatu, a segment of Japanese youth culture that revolves around anime, manga and games.
He has adopted a graphic cartoon style and modeled some figures on familiar Japanese animation. But Murikami exaggerates their design, often to a sensational effect.
An example of such characters is his famed My Lonesome Cowboy, a smiling nude cartoon boy, holding his penis, with a white jet of semen spiraling up into the air like a lasso. He modeled the face of Cowboy after a character in a popular video game, so it would look familiar to viewers.
Murikami has consistently asserted that the mix of high and low culture in his art is meant to represent a new aesthetic for a broad range of contemporary art. He calls it superflat, referring to the flattening of Japanese art conventional boundaries separating genres such as painting, illustration and fashion.
In addition to its leveling of genres, the concept of “superflat” maintains the common subject matter of Japanese animation and traditional Japanese painting. Murikami including these references throughout his oeuvre embodies the notion and feeling found in nostalgic art.
Jeff Koons and Nostalgic Art
Also known as the King of Kitsch, artist Jeff Koons is probably the closest artists to the original style of nostalgic art of Andy Warhol. Koons is known for his larger than life mirrored sculptures that grace hotel and corporate interiors, like the infamous balloon dog.
These sculptures remark on a childish wonder and enthusiasm, blending high art and low culture at the forefront of the contemporary art market.
The most controversial of his works is the bunny series. A more staunch, demented take on our comforting Peter Cottontail, with its crooked ears and off putting demeanor, the mirrored rabbit is meant to have the viewer reflect, quite literally.
But Is It Art?
Koons’ art perfectly follows the guidelines of nostalgic art by making us question whether it is art at all. His approach and use of the ideals of kitsch, or overly exaggerated imitation, purport the reference as the focal point of the work and take us to childhood memories. There is no room for interpretation, it is what it is.
This said, Koons receives a lot of backlash for the meticulously accurate replications as being consumerist and void of meaning. In reality, his pieces relies on the viewer to project their own feelings. To someone who remembers and once cherished an object, seeing an exaggerated version given the care and recognition of Koons’ sculpture can be an emotional experience.
Koons only goal with his art is to make things that people enjoy. Through this lens, artifacts from childhood or simpler times are a fitting subject.
Nostalgia is a universal emotion, it paints memories in more vivid colors and heightens mundane objects to the precious status of a lost treasure.