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November 9, 2006

Art Beat

Beyond Cute


Teddy HarvestWhat happens when the realm of didactic political art collides with a humorous and cutesy world of cartoon-like teddy bears and girly construction workers? You can find out at Kathy Aoki's art show "The Construction of Modern Girlhood," running from Nov. 9 through Dec. 9, at HSU's Reese Bullen Gallery. The exhibit incorporates printwork, mixed media sculptures and installations, focusing on the media's effect on young girls. This is a hot topic that has been discussed and explored before with varying degrees of success and complexity, leaving Aoki with a possible stigma to overcome. Kathy is brave enough to tackle the difficult problem, and does so with a fresh and multi-layered style.

Left: "Teddy Harvest" multiple plate linoleum cut.

Aoki creates a world where "ruthless construction cuties" operate pink construction equipment ornamented with flowers and hearts and employing an army of teddy bears. At first glance the work appears to be a celebratory embrace of hyper-girlie cuteness. I was initially pleased by this fun interpretation, and felt comfortable with the stereotypes displayed in the work because the girls were clearly smart and productive and enjoying their work as construction foregirls. But this notion of girl power was complicated when I realized they were constructing giant monuments to lip-gloss and platform shoes, and the teddy bears were being processed into skinny and glamorous submissive workers. In this scenario the teddy bears represent girls transformed by the media and the girls represent the media itself. Aoki asks us to consider a distinction between true power and a media saturated, consumerist version of girl power. Can lip-gloss represent power for girls? If so, in what context, and does it matter who's in control of the images? The printwork from "The Construction of Modern Girlhood" series reveals what Aoki sees as a salable girl-power myth.

The Cutest Poo, frontHer work seems to conquer all by touching on a wide range of themes, including gender and ethnic studies, the media and children, and the politics of beauty, while also mastering sculpture, installation and printmaking. Aoki is political in a surprising and subtle, yet totally unapologetic manner. She tells us in her artist's statement: "I am a sneaky feminist. I use humor, as well as familiar visual formats such as Japanese cartoon styling, to lure the viewer into the work. Once I have the viewer's attention, I impart my gender-agenda through characters placed in twisted narratives."

These narratives also come out in two installation pieces which are featured in the Reese Bullen Gallery show. The installation, The Cutest Poo (at right and below), includes a platform suspended from the ceiling holding a lamb-like animal with an artist book, or "poo," coming out the back. The accordion shaped artist book has cartoon drawings on each fold. Aoki relates this work to the themes from "The Construction of Modern Girlhood," explaining, "After ingesting the media's onslaught of cuteness/sex/beauty messages, these sacred animals `poop' out artist books depicting iconographic images."

Her other installation, The Battle of Kawaii (kawaii is the Japanese term for cute) fills up an entire wall with a ship battle scene. The nautical scene is taken from an 1853 Japanese woodblock print depicting evil invaders in Tokyo Bay. The familiar characters from "The Construction of Modern Girlhood" take on the role of the invaders. As in the prints from "The Construction of Modern Girlhood" series, one is initially pleased by the depiction of the young girls as powerful characters. Once again, however, you are forced to question who these girls are and what they represent.The Cutest Poo, back

Aoki is a Bay Area artist who completed her undergrad work at UC Berkeley and received her MFA in printmaking at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been shown all over the country, including exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the New York Public Library. She has a studio in San Jose and is an assistant professor at Santa Clara University.

Aoki will be in attendance at an opening reception for her show on Thursday, Nov 9, from 5-7 p.m. Everyone is invited to the reception as well as to view the exhibit during regular gallery hours. The Reese Bullen Gallery is open Mon-Wed. 12-5 p.m., Thurs. 12-7 p.m., Fri. 12-5 and Sat. 10-2. It is located in the art building on the HSU campus. From the highly political to the highly cute, this humorous show should have a little something for everyone.

Caitlin Collings is an art major at Humboldt State University.

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