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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006

Aya Kondo : Rock 'n' roll with manners

Special to The Japan Times

What can you say about Aya Kondo, a woodblock-print artist who has taken staid wafu -- traditional Japanese style -- and turned it into girly sass? In doing so, Kondo encapsulates everything we love about Japanese youth culture at its best: well-mannered rock 'n' roll, cultural self-consciousness, the go-getter ganbare spirit and a willingness to steal shamelessly from abroad.

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Woodcut artist Aya Kondo's prints "Edomae Guitar" (2003)

Kondo's subjects are part of the global vernacular of angst -- guns, smoking chicks and the obligatory Converse All Stars shoes -- that convey an edgy attitude . . . but with a Japanese girl gentility.

Kondo says, "First and foremost, I like to make pieces that people close to me -- within a 1-meter radius -- can enjoy and appreciate. Sometimes the trigger is something simple and personal. For example, smoking coils [instead of cigarettes] came about as I just quit smoking. The guns in my pictures are simply references from films that I love, such as Tarantino flicks."

If you suspect this isn't exactly highbrow art, you'd be right. But for those who love Asian kitsch and American pop/propaganda poster-style panache delivered to the tune of Patti Smith, her works will be right up your alley.

"I would describe my work as cool and funny, although my main message is 'don't give up.' I had a period when I was depressed and art got me through it. I just want to say 'everything is OK.' "

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Kondo's "Canary" (2003)

Kondo studied woodblock printing at Musashino Art University, and cites ukiyo-e artist Kawanabe Kyosai as one of her main influences. Many of her prints' playful references to popular Japanese imagery have made them popular overseas. Accordingly, she's had five shows in the United States.

"I found New York to be a very comfortable place; my work does very well. A lot of people understand what I'm trying to convey over there. I think some foreigners associate my work with anime and manga imagery for some reason. But usually the curators are people who like the spirit of 'putting up a fight.' "

Although her audience predominantly comprises people around her age (20-30), she says her works also appeal to an older generation. They are drawn to kakejiku scrolls such as "Tetsuba ni Hana" (2003) and "Yugawara no Omoide" (2003) that exemplify a classic stylistic sensibility. But what do they make of the guns 'n' girls?

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Kondo with her print "Welcome to My World"

"They wonder 'why?' But rather than make them understand, I want to connect with them and hear their life experiences. I want to show them my world. What I do is recycle an old concept and give it a revival. I'm not consciously trying to make a cultural statement by using traditional art techniques. I mainly want to do something that appeals to me and is intimate."

Although Kondo says her work is not consciously gender specific ("I'm more of a tomboy"), like many of the ubiquitous "girl artists" in Japan -- such as the photographer Nagashima Yurie, the performance artist Hanayo and the visual artist Yamaguchi Ai -- many of her works candidly reflect on the simple events that make up her daily existence. Much like the snapshot diary approach of art that documents personal minutiae, the viewer becomes the voyeur of a whole life.

Her current show at the Beams Gallery, "Marian Bootleg," is a clear instance of this: "This show came about as I broke up with my boyfriend. The theme is love. It started on Valentine's Day, and is a reflection of the last five years of my life. I'm displaying things from my home and bringing it to a public environment."

For Beams, she has filled the gallery with an installation of random paraphernalia from her room. Woodblock prints share space with chintzy Asian objects, while a Che Guevara photograph hangs incongruously from the gaudily decorated walls.

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Kondo's installation at Beams Gallery

There will be a second show at the Beams Gallery running Feb. 16-March 14, in which Kondo will show woodblock prints of her friend, the singer/songwriter Ikuru. Otherwise, she's looking to do more overseas shows this year, and more collaborations with musicians -- not only in Europe, but in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well.

Though this may sound like a thrust towards global fame, she's probably just trying to connect with new and old friends. With the simplicity and intimacy of her works, along with her flair for reappropriating traditional Japanese art and transcending cultural barriers, she could possibly succeed at both in the end.

"Marian Bootleg" will be at the Beams Art Gallery till Feb. 14, with a second show by Kondo, "Baroque Pianica," there Feb. 16-March 14. For more information, visit www.beams.co.jp/beams/b--gallery/ or the artist's site at www.kick-n-roll.com

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