To stand before a mural-size panorama by Chiho Aoshima is to lose yourself in another world—one where Japanese anime, traditional scroll paintings, apocalyptic visions, and Hello Kitty meld in magnetic, eye-popping fantasy. I was first seduced by her work several years ago, when I came across Japanese Apricot 2, an eight-foot-high image of a doe-eyed girl (in Aoshima's universe it's always girls) elaborately bound up in a tree. The scene is set in an intensely stylized landscape against a cotton candy–colored sky. While the cloud swirls and impossible mountain peaks owe a debt to classical Japanese painting, the apricot blossoms and sweet little birds are pure kawaii, the culture of cuteness that's so prevalent in contemporary Japan.
At the time I knew little about Aoshima beyond the fact that her mentor was Takashi Murakami, the guru-impresario who almost single-handedly launched the Japanese contemporary art sensation in the late nineties. Her digital creations seemed to tap into many of the same currents—interest in anime and kawaii, two-dimensional graphic imagery, fetishistic impulses—that gave Murakami's art an irresistible Pop appeal. Yet, compared with his detached, industrial-commercial style, hers registered as more emotional, more intriguingly personal.
Soon Aoshima's work started cropping up more frequently: images of anthropomorphized mountains and buildings, fantastically lush landscapes, otherworldly dreamscapes, dramatic conflagrations, at least one tsunami, and (clearly something of an obsession of hers) zombies. From the beginning she has veered between happy, almost utopian imagery and scenes of loneliness, death, and destruction. In some cases both can be found in the same piece, creating a kind of bipolar tension that runs throughout her art.
"Because of the places where I'm presenting my work, I sometimes feel I have to make lighter, happier images," Aoshima told me via a translator. "But I really enjoy drawing the dark, disturbing worlds. I believe the only way to feel positive is by being aware of darker things. Of course, in the end, even those should be cute."
In May the 32-year-old artist sat down with me at the New York studio of Kaikai Kiki, the company founded by Murakami to handle fabrication, licensing, and promotion for him and the handful of artists he represents, including Aoshima. She had come to the city for the summer to practice her English, prepare for a solo show this fall at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris, and simply be at the center of the international art world. With a string of prominent public commissions and museum projects under her belt, she is establishing herself as more than just a talented Murakami protégée.
Unlike other Kaikai Kiki artists, Aoshima didn't go to art school. After getting her degree in economics at Tokyo's Hosei University in 1995, she spent a few years at an advertising firm, where a graphic designer taught her how to use Illustrator software. She started doodling on her computer, as she put it, and when Murakami came in to oversee one of the firm's ad campaigns, she showed him a few pieces. "He thought they were interesting and encouraged me to keep doing them," Aoshima recounted. "About a year after that, he offered to include my work in a show he organized, 'Tokyo Girls Bravo.' I guess that's when I started thinking of myself as an artist."
He also hired Aoshima as a designer for Kaikai Kiki in Tokyo, working on Murakami-branded projects. It was her team, for example, that came up with the multicolor logo pattern on those hugely popular Louis Vuitton bags. At the same time she continued making her art which, especially at first, had a strong Pop sensibility, influenced by Japanese manga, or comics. She featured cheerleaders and schoolgirls and occasionally incorporated text. Building, from 1999, shows a girl wedged into a narrow space between hulking high-rises, where the only signs of life are a few wispy ferns, a centipede, and a snake. The kawaii elements are there, but the image hints at darker thoughts: It isn't clear whether the girl is trapped or taking refuge.
Between 2000 and 2005 Aoshima enjoyed an accelerating stream of shows and projects. She did a couple of high-profile collaborations with designer Issey Miyake (an installation at his Tokyo store and two lines of dresses printed with her images). Her work appeared in several shows at Perrotin and the Los Angeles gallery Blum & Poe. And most influentially, Murakami featured her in all three exhibitions of his celebrated trilogy, "Superflat," "Coloriage," and "Little Boy." Last year, with her career shifting into high gear, she gave up her position at the studio to focus on her own art.
Kaikai Kiki still represents Aoshima, and she remains in close contact with her mentor. "Takashi really understands me and my work," the artist said. "He will often make suggestions on how I should do things: 'Why don't you emphasize this part or downplay or eliminate that part of a piece?' And if he sees me slacking off, he comes and pushes me to work faster—kicks me in the ass a little bit."
Not that it's a two-way exchange. I asked if she ever offers him ideas or criticism. "I almost never—" she responded tentatively, before adding, "I don't."
For his part, Murakami said he has never thought of Aoshima as a disciple and certainly not, as one critic recently described the Kaikai Kiki artists, a clone. "Basically the similarity between us is that we were born and raised in Japan, in Tokyo," he said. "Our expressive mechanisms are animelike, but our messages are totally different. My works are inundated with resentment, whereas unease and happiness coexist in hers."
The full span of Murakami's output will be on display this fall, in a midcareer retrospective at the Geffen Contemporary branch of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The curator, Paul Schimmel, has been involved with both artists' work for years. "I think Takashi is, in some ways, in awe of Chiho's command of the computer, her complete control of her materials," he said. "She ran Kaikai Kiki's design department with great authority, and he always gave her a lot of respect and a lot of room. She's very quiet, but she's a force."
During my visit with Aoshima she came off as thoughtful and, at moments, quite serious—an impression softened by her disarming laugh and gestures of girlish animation, like when she skipped off to fetch a stack of books she has been using for inspiration. She came back with a small paperback on traditional Japanese painting, a book of satellite images titled Earthcam: Watching the World from Orbit, and chunky volumes on Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture and Japonisme—the term for that country's influence, especially of its 19th-century woodblock prints, on Western artists from Van Gogh to Toulouse-Lautrec to Gustav Klimt.
Lately, she told me, she's been looking a lot at the work of the 17th-century Japanese artist Tawaraya Sotatsu and the French Symbolist Odilon Redon, two distant yet eccentric figures. A cofounder of the Rimpa school of decorative painting, Sotatsu was known for his simple, exquisite scenes from nature and literature, often done on gold backgrounds. It's not hard to see connections between Sotatsu's stylized, two-dimensional imagery and Aoshima's digital prints. Similarly, her interest in nature and cycles of life, in fantasy and nightmares relates closely to Redon's. In fact, Schimmel described her as "kind of a 21st-century Symbolist."
To give a sense of how she works, Aoshima pulled out a laptop, her roving studio. She opened the Illustrator file for A Fleeting Moment of Happiness, a piece she made last year for the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Lyon, France. It's an ultrawide Technicolor landscape of hills and wormlike buildings with cute faces seemingly about to be overcome by a purplish, toxic-looking cloud. The image could be read as a statement about man's relationship with nature—and the future appears pretty dim.
Once the work was up on her screen Aoshima switched to a black-and-white view that revealed the hundreds of intricate vectors making up the image. With a few clicks she showed how she could adjust the contour of a building or add a butterfly. Aoshima maintains a library of motifs that she occasionally recycles, with modifications, but she draws most things from scratch. Then she started dropping in colors. The brief demonstration revealed how complex, infinitely changeable, and time-consuming her work can be.
It typically takes Aoshima about two months to complete her pieces, which she then outputs as editioned ink-jet or chromogenic prints. For exhibitions she sometimes creates huge one-off prints that she calls wallpapers. When installed at the Lyon museum, A Fleeting Moment of Happiness measured some 86 feet across.
"With the computer you can print things out at almost any size. It was kind of an accident when I did the first wallpaper," she said. "Looking at it on a small screen and then printing it out so big, it was completely different from the way I had imagined. Every time I do one, it seems there's something in the result that surpasses my imagination."
Aoshima also does sketches in watercolor and colored pencil, and she usually keeps a pile at her side for reference when she's working on the computer. She has also started to incorporate hand-drawing into finished works, including the 40-foot-long wall piece she created last year while participating in the well-known Artpace residency program in San Antonio—her first extended stay in this country. As We Died, We Began to Regain Our Spirit features comic-book renderings of San Antonio landmarks, each with a human face, floating on cloudlike trails of green and blue. After printing digitally made images of the buildings on traditional Japanese paper, she collaged the sheets on a wall and added the other elements by hand, using watercolor and colored pencil. The result is a kind of Pop riff on Japanese screen painting.
In addition, she has begun making video animations, a natural-seeming step for an artist working digitally on a cinematic scale. Her first, City Glow, created in 2005 with animator Bruce Ferguson, is a seven-minute loop that plays across five screens. It's a surrealistic evolution sequence that opens in an Edenic forest, which gives rise to a city of glowworm buildings, followed by a nightmarish scene in a ghoul-infested cemetery, and, finally, a new dawn with fairies, a rainbow, and blue skies.
Schimmel acquired City Glow for MOCA from Aoshima's 2005 show at Blum & Poe and included it in his re-cent "Ecstasy" exhibition at the museum. He called it "one of the most extraordinary pieces of animation ever made by an artist, period. It's something Takashi could never imagine. The use of the sweeping horizontal composition and the movement and timing of it are absolutely breathtaking."
When I met with Aoshima in May, deadlines for her upcoming show at Perrotin were already looming. She admitted she was feeling a little behind. She had a tabletop model of the gallery interior that she'd started filling in with miniature works, which will be a mix of printed and hand-drawn images and at least one three-dimensional piece. Among the core elements is a large sculpture of a demon figure that, if the sketches she made are a good indication, will look like a cross between a creature by Mau-rice Sendak and one of Odilon Redon's Gothic noirs. She also promised "a pretty scary, shocking" wallpaper piece.
All great Pop artists—Warhol, Koons, and Murakami, of course—have a dark side, and Aoshima enjoys channeling hers. For this show she is defying those who want her to stick to the happy work and is making images of a world she says she really wants to create. It will be dark, but it'll still be cute.
Chiho Aoshima's latest work is at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Paris from September 15 to October 11 (76 Rue de Turenne; 33-1/42-16-79-79; galerieperrotin.com). Her video animation, City Glow, is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, through October 21 (5601 Main St.; 713-639-7300; mfah.org).