YOSHITOMO NARA (Japanese, B. 1959)
YOSHITOMO NARA (Japanese, B. 1959)

One Foot in the Groove

YOSHITOMO NARA (Japanese, B. 1959)
One Foot in the Groove
acrylic on wood
188 x 302 x 8.5 cm. (74 x 118 7/8 x 3 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2012
Foil Co Ltd, Yoshitomo Nara: A Bit Like You and Me, Tokyo, Japan, 2012 (illustrated, p. 71; plate 32, P.75).
Dayi Publishing, Art Techo Special: Yoshitomo Nara Back to the Origin, Taipei, Taiwan (illustrated, p. 62).
Yokohama, Japan, Yokohama Museum of Art, Yoshitomo Nara: A Bit Like You and Me, 2012.
Aomori, Japan, Aomori Prefectural Museum of Art, Yoshitomo Nara: A Bit Like You and Me, 2012.
Kumamoto, Japan, Kumamoto Museum of Modern Art, Yoshitomo Nara: A Bit Like You and Me, 26 January - 14 April 2013.

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Lot Essay

Yoshitomo Nara's playful children and animals with large heads have a distinct, endearing quality. A grimacing little girl typically appears alone against a flat background. Sometimes grievances and expletives are scrawled above her. Other times, she is deep in thought with eyes closed. She rarely smiles but when she does, it often looks more like a sneer. Nara's seemingly simple and innocent characters are more than meets the eye.

A great admirer of Motai Takeshi, 20th century Japanese illustrator of children's books, Nara himself has produced children's books and objects that are kawaii, or specifically kowai kawaii (cute yet slightly disturbing). While most of this genre is dominated by crisp computer graphics, Nara opts for a hand-drawn aesthetic in rich and dreamy pastel colours. In post-war Japan where rapid urbanisation and cutting edge computer technology are championed, Nara's work is a sincere reminder of a slower pace of life and attests to the resilience of traditional painting.

Nara is also deeply influenced by Ukiyo-e - woodblock prints and paintings of geishas, Kabuki actors, landscapes and erotic scenes that defined quintessential Japanese art from the 16th to 19th century. Ukiyo-e, translated as "pictures from a floating world," were made for the rising Japanese middle class who indulged in women and entertainment. Instead of social status symbols, Nara calls attention to children or animals by isolating them against a flat, minimalist space. The "less is more" aesthetic adheres not only to Ukiyo-e, but also to Japanese Zen philosophy. This idea is further illustrated in the single, slightly curved line representing the mouth, conveying a wide and complex range of emotions. Nara proves that a simple gesture can produce profound effects.

Having studied in Germany, Nara was exposed to the new forms of Western Modern art, such as Impressionism and Cubism. These movements in turn borrowed heavily from non-Western traditions, including Ukiyo-e. Nara actually appropriates Japanese art twice: first, directly in Japan, and then again through the Western perspective of Eastern art. Nara's muted palette could be associated with Impressionism, his bold compositions with Post-Impressionism and Cubism. Hence, Nara becomes a moderator in the dialogue between East and West. Although he draws inspiration from both cultures, he creates his own unique visual language.

In the painting One Foot in the Groove (Lot 57), a brooding little girl lies alone on a bed of clouds. Despite the serenity of her environment, she remains wary; her lips are sealed tight, her body turned away from the sky, and one hand protectively holds the other. The flat, abstracted body calls to mind Picasso's late Cubist works. Like Picasso, Nara distorts the human body but never to the same degree of abstraction. The resulting body language is highly evocative even if little to no facial expression appears.

The girl stares sceptically above her where cryptic words in red block letters read "One Foot in the Groove." This is a reference to the 2008 song and album of American country musician Donnie Fritts. The lyrics reveal the age-old predicament of choosing between good and evil:

I heard the angels calling me
What a heavenly sound
But then I heard Old Devil singing that shaky ground
Feeling low and flying high
I didn't know what to do
because I had one foot in the circle
and one foot in the groove

One can imagine the conflicting views in this little girl's head as she grapples with her spirituality and mortality. Although this verse alludes to Christian ideas of the afterlife, it also highlights the concept of free will and human capacity to make decisions. The girl has to determine for herself what is right and wrong. She has to choose between the temptations of this material world and a place in heaven through righteousness. The point at which she recognises the moral implications of different actions marks the end of her innocence.

A similar but larger painting from 2007 shows another girl at a table contemplating a small object in her hands. The object is a skull, the ultimate memento mori, or reminder of the inevitability of death. "Life is Only One!" the big red text urgently proclaims. The billboard-like sizes of both Nara paintings make them look like public service announcements that prompt serious consideration and seek to elicit some kind of action. Perhaps, Nara's words are not so much a proclamation, but an exclamation. He laments the transience of life and accepts that the foot is stuck in the groove, requiring one to step out of the heavenly circle.

Whatever the message, Nara's paintings play testament to his solitary childhood and provide a medium for his philosophical musings on life and death. Is getting one's foot in the groove inevitable or does one have the power to change the outcome? Does it even matter? Nara provides no answers, as if to maintain that everyone is alone in his or her resolution. Amidst so much uncertainty, it remains a great comfort to know that we all share similar fears and desires.

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