Kathy Aoki describes herself as a sneaky feminist. Teddy bears, butterflies and cherub-faced girls populate the prints and sculptures in her latest series, “Modern Girlhood.” But while the seemingly innocent and cartoon-like characters in her work wear exuberant smiles, sinister things are happening all around. Bulldozers mow down stuffed animals. A giant tube of lip gloss becomes the latest civic monument added to an otherwise pristine outdoor landscape.
“The work I make is showing this messed-up system that’s perpetuated by the media that makes girls want to conform and buy into this cuteness,” Aoki explains when Spark visits her Santa Clara studio while she prepares for a solo exhibition at the LMAN gallery in Los Angeles. And although her message is a bold one, Aoki’s use of anime-inspired images and candy colors yields results that are more likely to provoke conversation than arguments.
The ideas for Aoki’s linoleum cut prints and installation pieces have their roots in both the past and the present. The daughter of two Yale-educated doctors, Aoki recalls how her own mother struggled with being a female in a male-dominated profession. But she also finds inspiration from current-day phenomena, like the Cartoon Network’s popular “Powerpuff Girls” television show and everyday representations of women in magazines and the media.
“I try to use humor and pattern and color, things that will attract an audience that might not necessarily want to stick around for strong feminist messages. I have a hard time myself looking at angry feminist work, and I feel it often puts a wall between the artist and the viewer,” she says.
After studying French at the University of California at Berkeley, Aoki earned an M.F.A. in printmaking from Washington University in St. Louis, Mo. She has received numerous fellowships and awards, including the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Public Art Award for her 2004 Market Street kiosk poster series depicting super heroes performing random acts of kindness. Her work appears in the permanent collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Harvard University Art Museums, the New York Public Library and many others. She is currently an assistant professor in studio and computer art at Santa Clara University.