HARUMI YAMAGUCHI, installation view of Big Nude B (left) and Big Nude A (right) at Aishonanzuka, Hong Kong. Courtesy Aishonanzuka.

Installation view of HARUMI YAMAGUCHI’s “Harumi Gals” at Aishonanzuka, Hong Kong. Courtesy Aishonanzuka. 

HARUMI YAMAGUCHIBonnie and Clyde, 1980, acrylic on board, 51.3 × 60 cm. Courtesy Aishonanzuka, Hong Kong. 

Harumi Gals

Harumi Yamaguchi

Hong Kong Japan

Nestled in the expanding South Island Cultural District of Hong Kong is Aishonanzuka gallery, a joint initiative of Japanese galleries Aisho Miura Arts and Nanzuka, which opened in 2013 with the aim of promoting lesser-known and younger Japanese artists. Their latest exhibition, “Harumi Gals,” presents 13 of renowned Japanese illustrator Harumi Yamaguchi’s airbrushed paintings from the 1970s and 1980s, which were derived from her time working for the Japanese department store chain PARCO.

Born in Matsue in Japan’s Shimane prefecture, Yamaguchi studied oil painting at the Tokyo University for the Arts. After three years of working in publicity for Seibu Department Stores, she pursued a career as a freelance illustrator, where she assisted in the designing of PARCO’s advertisements. This was during the 1970s, a time when Japan saw many economic, political and social reforms—particularly in women’s rights—that led to the emergence of Ĺ«man ribu, or the women’s liberation movement. Inspired by such social environments, Yamaguchi created illustrations that evoked female equality in a rapidly modernizing Japanese society. In 1978, PARCO published Yamaguchi’s monograph Harumi Gals, featuring her airbrush works and vibrant illustrations, thus cementing Yamaguchi as an iconic Japanese female artist.

At Aishonanzuka, Yamaguchi’s photo-realistic illustrations, primarily depicting Western women, are highly saturated in color, with each work portrayed in a stylized manner as was common in high-fashion advertisements of that era. Presented in the first room of the gallery are Big Nude A and Big Nude B (both 1983)—two pieces that are striking in their contrast to the other works in the room. Set against a royal blue wall, the two paintings are portraits of plump, nude female figures, who have their backs facing the viewer. In these depictions there is a sensibility reminiscent of paintings from the Italian Renaissance—Giorgione’s masterpiece, Sleeping Venus (c. 1510), for instance—that celebrate the female form. However, by intentionally portraying women in a manner that typically illustrates the “male gaze,” Yamaguchi subverts this act of looking through a man’s perspective.

Elsewhere in the show, two paintings stand out for their assertion of women’s evolving role in modern society. Bonnie and Clyde (1980) portrays a handsomely dressed couple seated on a plush-leather couch. The man’s hands tightly grips a rifle, and it is as though we are catching the duo in the middle of a heist. He looks intently ahead, while his accomplice looks out at the viewers mischievously, as if challenging us to take action. Meanhile, Spiral Woman (1982) portrays a super-hero-like figure, seemingly inspired by the American comic book character Wonder Woman. Emerging from a cloudy gray background, her head is the only part of her that is made visible, leading visitors to confront her piercing gaze.

In many ways, Yamaguchi’s “Harumi Gals” is a compelling look back at a significant moment in Japan’s history. It is also a celebration of Yamaguchi’s practice, and the way she inserted a feminist perspective into mainstream advertisements, at a time when ideas of women’s equality was just gaining momentum in society. Looking now at her airbrushed illustrations several decades on, they leave the viewer in awe of Yamaguchi, who pioneered a path for the younge generation of female artists in Japan.


Installation view of HARUMI YAMAGUCHI’s “Harumi Gals” at Aishonanzuka, Hong Kong. Courtesy Aishonanzuka. 

“Harumi Gals” is on view at Aishonanzuka, Hong Kong, until April 18, 2015.