The most common associations with the contemporary Japanese art scene are usually two-fold. On the one hand, the scene in the mainstream understanding is dominated by the giants like Takashi Murakami, Hajime Sorayama and Yoshitomo Nara, all of which have a strong blue-chip representation, shows in major institutions across the world and many collaborations with fashion and design brands (Murakami – Louis Vuitton, Hajime Sorayama – Dior, Nara – Stella McCartney), which is a crucial step in cementing the artist’s position in the public’s eye. While their styles are ultimately quite different, Murakami’s is colourful, vibrant and cartoonish, Sorayama’s is the sci-fi and erotic and Nara mixes the child-like cartoonish style with a darker, rebellious twist, they all have the same ability to create a recognizable pop style. The other face of the mainstream associations with Japanese art has to do with minimalism, rooted in the Eastern appreciation for nature and traditional and natural materials – something which is not necessarily exclusive to Japanese art. A great example is Lee Ufan, a Korean minimalist painter and sculptor, who studied and works in Japan. His works are restrained, minimalist and centred around natural materials like unrefined stone or blocks of iron. On the border between the minimal art and one with a strong popular appeal. Yayoi Kusama
Those two conceptually and formally different approaches to art are an interesting, although oversimplified, dichotomy explaining the contemporary Japanese art scene, where the human is either a starting point of a philosophical enquiry or the very centre of the vibrant cartoonish world, reflecting the everyday experience of life in the Japanese metropolises. While abstract and minimalist Japanese art has been accepted by the mainstream canon of art history much earlier, the figurative works for a long time, almost until the last decade of the twentieth century, occupied an undefined territory between art and popular culture defined by the aesthetic of manga and anime.
The styles of Chiho Aoshima, Ayako Rokkaku and Lady Aiko, while, again, different from each other, fit best in the first conceptual category of instantly recognizable, very graphic, cartoonish Pop art, relevant in the light of the achievements of the previously mentioned Murakami, Sorayama and Nara. Chiho Aoshima is a member of Takashi Murakami’s collective Kaikai Kiki. She is a self-made artist who taught herself Adobe Illustrator while studying economics at Hosei University. She showed in an exhibition Tokyo Girls Bravo, curated by Murakami in 2004, which revisited a show under the same title that he hosted for the first time in 1999, which included mostly young, under-thirty artists. Murakami’s aim with the show was to give a platform to the next generation of Japanese Pop artists and strengthening the position of the Japanese art market. The focus of Tokyo Girls Bravo was on the personal, female experience, where the fantasy world enters the popular and entertainment culture, back then seen more strongly through the prism of gender and social codes.
A shared characteristic between the art of Aoshima and other successful women artists included in the show like Rei Sato and Mahomi Kunikata was the ‘superflat’ postmodernist style that Murakami championed and a way of re-working cartoonish imagery stemming from childhood memories or manga into one with a more mature, darker twist. In comparison to Murakami’s electric colour scheme, Aoshima’s palette is more toned down, suitable for the dreamscape-like themes of her works, many of which formally reference traditional Japanese woodblock prints, ukiyo-e, in which the human figure would be drawn with a fine black line. Her use of line drawing is more delicate and elegant than the symmetrical figures and flowers of Murakami. The elements of the ‘kawaii’ imagery are not limited to the reading as childhood memories and reminiscences but rather as a way of tapping into one’s inner emotions, which on many occasions have to be hidden or disguised. Aoshima often uses the figure of shōjo, a girl between the age of 7 and 18, usually associated with flowery or cute imagery, which she depicts in darker or twisted scenarios, giving her work a more complex edge, surpassing the kawaii aesthetics.
In Aoshima’s works, there is an undertone romanticizing the post-apocalyptic references in her works, which inform the narratives overlapping between her murals and paintings. An interesting point of reference to Aoshima’s works are those by another female member of the Kaikai Kiki Collective, Aya Takano, which on the contrary to Aoshima, prefers oil paint, which gives her works a more natural, and subdued tone. Similarly to Aoshima, Takano has also been influenced by the post-apocalyptic imagery of the sci-fi books she used to read when she was young. For her, the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, which caused the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, was a turning point from depicting urban landscapes and concentrating on a more tender, natural landscape.
The works of Yoshitomo Nara, depicting the complexities of human emotions through the use of child-like and animal characters, which likely influenced the use of shōjo by Aoshima, were also significant for the formation of the style of another Japanese woman artist – Ayako Rokkaku. While Rokkaku often opts for a vibrant colour scheme in the style of Murakami, she mostly paints on board or canvas, leaving the elements of an uncovered background visible. The emphasis on the physicality of the medium aligns Rokkaku’s work with the likes of Aya Takano and Yoshitomo Nara rather than the Murakami’s or Aoshima’s super flat style (even though Rokkaku is also a member of the Kaikai Kiki Collective), which is more effective in the digital medium. Rokkaku’s approach to applying a thick layer of paint, with visible brushstrokes is similar to that of Impressionists, or Post-Impressionists like van Gogh, a century earlier. When producing her large-scale canvases, she works with her hands, applying the paint directly onto the canvas when standing up. Just like Aoshima, Rokkaku is self-thought and her big-eyed, child-like characters recall the style of manga and the expressiveness of the works of Yoshitomo Nara, which tend to describe complex emotions of anger or disappointment. Despite the many comparisons to Nara, Rokkaku’s works tend to be more expressive, vibrant and child-like, while Nara’s are more muted, perhaps even serious.
In comparison to the artistic styles of Chiho Aoshima, Ayako Rokkaku, Lady Aiko (or AIKO) has chosen a different artistic identity, one which visually appears to be less related to the styles of the most well-known Japanese artists. Tokyo-born Lady Aiko moved to New York in the mid-1990s, where she worked in Takashi Murakami’s Brooklyn studio, which she left after a couple of years to embark on an artistic career of a graffiti artist, a traditionally very male-dominated environment. After leaving Murakami’s studio, she worked as a part of a graffiti collective with Patrick McNeil and Patrick Miller called FAILE, which produced monochromatic female nudes.
Since the early 2000s, she became one of the most recognizable and respected women artists working with graffiti and one who seamlessly fused the Western styles (like Roy Lichtenstein’s ban day dots and comic-inspired characters on predominantly white backgrounds) and visuals relating to the experience of the Japanese women. On the contrary to Chiho Aoshima and Ayako Rokkaku, the female characters she chooses to depict are not girls and teens but mature women, aware of their passions and heritage and not living in fantasy land but ready to literally transform the world around them, as their figures appear on the building walls around the world.
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