Aiko Robinson – Head over Heels – 23 June-11 July, 2015
An exhibition of woodcuts, wooden screens and watercolours inspired by traditional Japanese ‘shunga’. Christchurch based, of Japanese / New Zealand heritage, Aiko Robinson is a recent graduate of Elam School of Fine Art, Auckland. This is her first one-person exhibition.
WARNING: this exhibition contains sexually explicit imagery
AIKO ROBINSON – HEAD OVER HEELS
by Jane Bowman
The basic principles of the woodcut printing technique were applied to print fabric in China as early as the 3rd century AD. This printing technique became extremely popular in the ukiyo-e movement that occurred in Japanese art from the 17th to 19th centuries. Ukiyo-e was focused on the depiction of subjects from everyday life. It is a particular genre of ukiyo-e that Aiko Robinson is referencing: shunga. A form of idealised erotic art, shunga has the literal translation of “spring pictures.” Spring was a euphemism for sex. As Robinson herself asserts, “Like most pornography, shunga depicts sexual fantasy, rather than reality.”[i]
However, it is not only the subject matter of Robinson’s prints that captures one’s attention, but also the scale. A scale that is in complete contrast to the intimate and portable size of the historic shunga prints. The three woodcut prints are large and cannot be ignored. A monochromatic palette heightens the graphic quality of the images, with a myriad of bold black and white lines depicting the stark forms. The scale of the lines makes for an interesting viewing experience; the eyes are quickly taken along the dominant exterior of the rendered forms. After visually ducking and diving across the print, drapery is recognised, then delicate fingers and toes discovered. Suddenly one realises Robinson has presented us with entwined headless human forms, with exaggerated genitalia all part of the entanglement in true shunga fashion.
Yet, for such striking imagery there is still some beautifully subtle detailing that is particularly apparent in the delineation of the aforementioned fingers and toes. These dainty digits resemble the historical depiction of such forms, seen throughout many genres of traditional Japanese imagery. Such linear constructions bring to mind the eye-catching work of English illustrator and writer Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98). His magnificent Art Nouveau curls and swirls and the flat decorative qualities of his imagery are recollected in Robinson’s prints. It is interesting to note that Beardsley, along with other 19th century European artists, was also inspired by Japanese woodblock prints.
The flowing woodgrain of the printing block has also been included in Robinson’s curvilinear compositions. The imagery seems to be coming out of the grain, which cleverly reminds us of the process used in the creation of these images. Unlike the detailed interior scenes that often provide a setting in historical shunga, here the areas of woodgrain patterning become the background for these modern day figures and provide a compositional anchor.
As a result of the lack of setting, there is much less intimacy involved with this imagery. The viewer also feels removed due to the anonymity of the figures that are headless. Robinson has presented us with a unique pictorial device, particularly in reference to shunga and modern day pornography. It is as though she has applied her own censorship to the imagery, removing the identity of the figures, instead of blurring out the genitalia. It seems to feel less invasive when the subject is not known. Robinson’s headless figures have a looming Surrealist feel, reminiscent of René Magritte (1898 – 1967). The prints’ titles also have a Surreal or even Dadaist quality as they reference the absurd. Head over heels, Love is blind and Losing my mind are emotions and states of mind that could never be felt by these headless beings. In addition, the titles are an indication from Robinson that we are looking at depictions of love, rather than pornography.
By contrast, this feeling of love is intensified with the intimacy of scale and execution of the watercolours that are presented alongside the woodblock prints. Robinson’s watercolours portray many of the same concepts as her prints with further depictions of headless figures in various sexual acts. But due to the scale, the viewer must stand close; a more private experience than that of the woodblock prints. A new level of immaculate delineation of form and exacting control of miniscule detailing becomes apparent after this closer inspection. In works such as Like a mushroom in a field of pansies we see the same sensitive lines, now quieter but more frequent. There is great variation within the linear characteristics. The full depth of the Indian ink creates dark, sharp lines that contrast with the muted washiness of others. The human forms have evolved as well, becoming more European in their physical traits and showing similarities to the angular figurative works of Austrian painter and draughtsman Egon Schiele (1890-1918).
At the same time there is a softness and beauty about the images, heightened by the medium itself. A pretty palette has been employed to emphasise particular areas within the tight and controlled compositions. Human forms are highlighted with a gentle blushing of peach, while sections of drapery are filled with colour to distinguish flesh from fabric and draw the eye to the various focal points. As in her woodblock prints, once again there is a subtle nod to the medium from Robinson. In Like overflowing waterfalls a porcelain-like hand is forced in to a wet area of pooling pigment. It accentuates her control of the medium, and also adds to the sensual reading of the image. This sensuality is encapsulated by the glorious swathes of drapery. The drapery visually and literally cushions the human forms. In admiration of shunga ideals, Robinson has exaggerated the flowing lengths of fabric, creating another unique element in her modern take of this historic art form.
Jane Bowman, PGgallery192, June 2015
[i] A. Robinson, Pornography and the paradoxes of the Edo Japanese Voyeur, 2014, Bachelor of Fine Arts Honours research essay, p. 2.
Article by Warren Feeney – The Press, Christchurch, 10 July, 2015