Project Native Informant

Harumi Yamaguchi in Conversation

April 2021

The halcyon days of the airbrush medium – the cocaine disco ball heights of the 1970s and the gold plated bull years of the 1980s – allowed artists to depict contemporary life through the heady gauze of an infernal zeitgeist. Commercial in its pursuit, airbrushing allowed for mass and ubiquitous production, and thus omnipresent appeal. There was the California school (Peter Palombi and David Willardson), the London cohort (Syd Brak and Philip Castle), and of course the Japanese contingent (Hajime Soriyama and Pater Sato). They depicted their divine and sometimes absurd masculine fantasies with a baroque patina of perversion, fetish and filth.  But you can’t mention those artists in the same breath without citing Harumi Yamaguchi, who stands out not only because she is a woman, but also because of her exuberant feminine portrayal. Using the medium to create lush, hyper realistic illustrations, Harumi subverts the prototypical pinup to convey women in powerful positions, disavailed of the male gaze and wiped clean of gender normative roles: riding horses with an uzi, playing baseball, delivering a fruit basket on a miniature motorcycle. With bright pops of color and flesh tones, Harumi’s “gals,” as she calls them, are sexual, but never sexualized. They are filled to the line with a living palette – red lips, satin undergarments, raw energy – and they lack that prototypical pallor of necrophilia. Almost pushing eight decades on earth, Harumi hasn’t slowed down since she became known for her PARCO advertising campaigns, which represented the carefree lifestyle of the revolutionary department store’s customers. During the same time, Harumi was tasked by art director, Shozo Tsurumoto, to create a series of athletic and kinematic covers for Japanese publication, Apache. Over the last couple of years, Harumi has inspired Adam Selman’s Spring 2015 collection, she has collaborated with Stüssy, and over the summer, in collaboration with YOSHIROTTEN, she presented a dynamic and immersive installation of her work. We caught up with Harumi via email to discuss her life’s work and her most current show.

OLIVER MAXWELL KUPPER: What were you like growing up – were you creative and always drawing, or was it something that came later?

HARUMI YAMAGUCHI: Since I was a child, I liked to draw. When I drew cute girls in kindergarten, my friends often asked me, “Can I have one?” as gifts.

KUPPER: Did your parents or family support your artistic pursuits?

YAMAGUCHI: My family loved music and always played classical music. The song that I hummed first was a verse from an aria by Rigoletto. But I liked to draw as much as listen to music.

KUPPER: You initially studied oil painting in school. When did you first start using the airbrush medium – was it something that you naturally gravitated to or were you inspired by another artist or artists?

YAMAGUCHI: I started oil painting when my teacher in junior high school recommended it to me. After I became a freelance illustrator, I bought a simple spray gun at an art supply store, which seemed useful for gradation expression. 

KUPPER: Your airbrush works are very dynamic and life-like – was it easy or hard to find your groove with the airbrush tool, was there a big learning curve?

YAMAGUCHI: My airbrush technique is self-taught, but I have acquired the skills through experiencing many troubles. For instance, some of the more delicate expressions, such as the method of masking, were devised while I was working on my technique.

KUPPER: How did Parco find your work – were you working for a specific advertising agency?

YAMAGUCHI: One day, when I was just a freelance illustrator working for books and magazines, I got a phone call from Mr. Tsuuji Masuda – who had been working for SEIBU department store at that time – saying “Shall we create adverts together?,” that was for his new project of establishing the new department store PARCO which would be consisting of 190 specialty stores.

KUPPER: What was your working relationship like – did you have a lot of creative freedom?

YAMAGUCHI: As long as I have been a freelance illustrator, I was able to choose the projects that I wished to do. Moreover, I had chances to manipulate the works to make them better as I feel, while accepting the clients’ requests.

KUPPER: You really captured the energy of the 70s and 80s – how would you define femininity during those eras, because there was a lot of liberation – was it that way in Japan?

YAMAGUCHI: Fortunately, I grew up in a coeducational school from kindergarten to university, hence the mutual respect for gender was a basic thing as I felt it was natural. Living in "freedom" is the best for both men and women.

KUPPER: You also worked with Apache magazine – I couldn’t find much info on the magazine, what kind of things did they cover and how long were you doing their covers?

YAMAGUCHI: First of all, I was requested for the illustrations for the covers of 12 magazines, thereby discussed with the editor to exchange the ideas for 12 delightful situations for the covers.

KUPPER: Some people compare your style to Alberto Vargas, but his work was much more expressly erotic – were you initially attempting to subvert the male gaze and show women in more powerful positions of life and work?

YAMAGUCHI: I love Vargas’s pinups. Nevertheless, my works were requested to be targeted at women, therefore I had never thought about erotic expression primarily.

KUPPER: One of your contemporaries is the late Peter Sato – have you ever talked to him about your practice or shared insights?

YAMAGUCHI: Mr. Peter was a wonderful man as both a painter and a person. I was really happy to be a friend of him. I wish could have talked with him more and more.

KUPPER: In your words, how would you define a “Harumi Gal?”

YAMAGUCHI: Women who live with free-spirit as a first reason for living.

KUPPER: Would you define yourself as a “Harumi Gal?”

YAMAGUCHI: Probably.

KUPPER: Your current exhibition Harumi Summer looks amazing, how did that show come together?

YAMAGUCHI: I worked with YOSHIROTTEN for making CD jackets 8 years ago, and he impressed me strongly. Thus, my wish to collaborate with him has got stronger when I got an opportunity to hold the two-month-solo-exhibition in midsummer. Subsequently, he undertook my offer after he saw a lot of my works. The idea of the “Harumi’s Summer” occurred to us from one of my work “Poolside” which impressed him most.

KUPPER: You collaborated with YOSHIROTTEN on the creative direction of the show, which puts your work in a very contemporary context and gives it a contemporary edge, what were some of the concepts surrounding the exhibition?

YAMAGUCHI: I would like audiences to receive something by their own sensitivity.

KUPPER: What is next for the Harumi Gals?

YAMAGUCHI: I will show you the answer by my works.

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