Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World at Seattle Asian Art Museum. • Photo by Joshua White (jwpictures.com)
Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World at Seattle Asian Art Museum. • Photo by Joshua White (jwpictures.com)

The art of Chiho Aoshima is subversively contradictory. Colorful and whimsical, it harbors dark undertones: young girls frolic among gravestones; cute human skyscrapers fall victim to natural disasters. Her current show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum is a retrospective of an unlikely career.

A protégé of Japanese art superstar, Takashi Murakami, and a member of his Kaikai Kiki collective, Aoshima has had solo shows at museums and galleries in Japan, the United States, and Europe. In Seattle, her entourage from Kaikai Kiki included Murakami himself.

Speaking before the show’s opening, Aoshima discussed her work in Japanese, in a voice so soft that only the English translator could be heard. Slender, tall, and understated in a leather jacket and jeans, she stood with feet together, wrists crossed and hands clasped like a schoolgirl reciting.

She recounted how, as a child, she lived near a cemetery where she took refuge in times of stress. She liked to draw, but hid her drawings because they were of naked girls. When her parents discovered these drawings, she stopped. After graduating from college with a degree in economics, she worked at an advertising firm. There, a designer introduced her to Illustrator software, with which she resumed drawing.

Fortuitously, Murakami was working on a project with the firm. He encouraged her work, ultimately hiring her as a designer for Kaikai Kiki, where she worked on projects with fashion designer Issey Miyake and luxury leather goods maker Louis Vuitton.

These experiences surfaced in Aoshima’s early work. Although her visual style is obviously influenced by Murakami’s flat, graphic, anime aesthetic, her subject matter is uniquely her own. She uses the computer to compile small elements into a single complex image, and to reproduce work at different scales, from framed prints to room-size murals that she calls wallpapers.

“Red Eyed Tribe” (2000) grew out of her work for Miyake: a sunless ocean-floor environment peopled with ghostly figures in Miyake-designed clothes. Her childhood imagery re-surfaced in “Graveheads” (2005): lines of naked girls dance across a mountain panorama, reminiscent of the innocently erotic work of outsider artist Henry Darger. The sky turns dark, raining blood onto mountainous heads crowned with gravestones; then lightens to blue punctuated by a rainbow, one small cloud, and an ominous tiny black dragon.

After establishing herself as a digital artist, Aoshima returned to drawing by hand, committed to improving her skills. She practiced daily, producing about 300 watercolors, of which 35 are included in this show. The environment, urban or natural, is a recurring theme in these drawings. Cemeteries and natural disasters are among the darker landscapes.

Moi Moi, an androgynous childlike character invented by Aoshima, takes many forms: animal, plant, building, airplane, a UFO, a stone in the landscape, a peninsula in the water. These smaller works line a gallery whose walls and ceiling are covered with one of Aoshima’s wallpapers: a pastel landscape of Takachiho, a place where, according to Japanese legend, gods descended to Earth.

These drawings became the source images for her digital video installations, created in collaboration with New Zealand-based animator Bruce Ferguson. This exhibition includes the debut of their second work, “Takaamanohara,” a seven-minute cycle of destruction and regeneration inspired by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It is technically a video, but that word fails to convey its size and scope. The five-channel projection spans a wall 60 feet long. The definition of the image and the three-dimensional quality of the soundtrack are uniformly high from one end of the room to the other. Action fills the screen from corner to corner, to an amazing level of detail: fireflies, flying saucers, growing plants, waxing and waning light. The storyline is simple: a volcano erupts, darkening the sky and setting city and forest ablaze. A tsunami fells buildings and washes them out to sea. An allegorical earth-figure walks from shore and sinks into the water. The sky brightens, a rainbow appears. New buildings, trees and flowers sprout and bloom. Cars and planes return to the city. Ghosts rise like smoke, then vaporize like clouds. The cycle repeats.

Although Aoshima used disaster imagery in her work prior to 2011, since the earthquake, she has witnessed increased anxiety in Japan, but also the process of recovery. While admitting that she is “naturally a bit of a sour person,” she stated that “Takaamanohara,” is intended to be optimistic. The cycle of disaster and rebirth suits Aoshima’s penchant for seeing the dark side and the light.

‘Chiho Aoshima: Rebirth of the World’ is at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on Capitol Hill, through October 4. For more information, visit www.visitsam.org/chiho or call (206) 625-8900.

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