Nicholas Aoki: goodnight; sweet, hearts

Toronto

Nicholas Aoki: Libation (2009): Acrylic on paper, 15.75 x 23.5 inches. Courtesy Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto.Nicholas Aoki: Libation (2009): Acrylic on paper, 15.75 x 23.5 inches. Courtesy Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto.By Carolyn Tripp

Nicholas Aoki
goodnight; sweet, hearts

Narwhal Art Projects
August 13 - September 20, 2009

A black, wingless owl glides across the pale sky, the villagers flee, Pontius Pilate holds camp with the jester and the White Lady, while scores cross the River Styx without any coins for the ferrymen.

Nicholas Aoki is a member of the Toronto-based art collective Team Macho. This, his first solo exhibition, provided the artist with an opportunity to branch out from Team Macho’s style — if that group could ever be said to have only one — and gave viewers the chance to consider his contributions to that group.

Aoki’s solo work calls to mind the master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (b. 1941) in its intricate detail. (Miyazaki is best known to Western audience for several films, including the 1997 release Princess Mononoke and this year’s Ponyo.) Aoki doesn’t mind this comparison; ever since Aoki was a child, he has been following Miyasaki’s work. Both artists, albeit one through the moving image, possess styles built around complex narratives and multitudes of bizarre, mythical characters.

Aoki’s paintings draw upon sources beyond the contemporary Japanese culture that he’s known since childhood. For example, Greek mythology informs the story lines about strife, omens, death and the afterlife in his most recent paintings. Aoki contends that the Greek gods are “the best kind” because of their irrationality and imperfection, making mistakes for which humankind has had to suffer. Aoki creates scenes that display a sense of humour and employ absurdity, but retain the gravity of their mythical origins. The narratives thus remain maudlin.

Nicholas Aoki: Into the Maw We Follow (2009): Acrylic on paper, 19 x 31.5 inches. Courtesy Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto.Nicholas Aoki: Into the Maw We Follow (2009): Acrylic on paper, 19 x 31.5 inches. Courtesy Narwhal Art Projects, Toronto.Aoki’s work shares figurative elements with Team Macho’s work, but that is where their similarities seem to end. The Team’s practice employs every medium, resulting in a wide range of work that includes meticulously rendered oil paintings, simple black-and-white pencil drawings and crudely drawn portraits produced with thick acrylic paint and loose outlines. Aoki’s input, it seems, is the dramatic washes of colour and rendering of transparent figures using airbrushing techniques. In the goodnight; sweet, hearts exhibition, he expanded his approach, including entire landscapes that employ this light, airy style. The results are particularly breathtaking with his ghost characters, and the skies of orange and blue. Although the colour palettes of some paintings could be considered anything but simple, Aoki insists they are. He has departed from the riot of colours of Team Macho’s work, which ranged from silver and gold, and into neons.

In spite of the exhibition’s delightful eccentricities, the multitude of characters in some works felt overwhelming. Aoki contends that paintings containing narratives should be subject to multiple interpretations, which is true. However, it becomes difficult to follow his story lines when there is so much going on. Sometimes, the scores of characters work against the series, and while the technique and attention to detail is exquisite, some pieces felt crowded visually and laboured, as though they could take hours to decipher.

However, one wasn’t faced with this conundrum when looking at the accompanying series of watercolours, which were beautiful in their simplicity. The piece, Celaeno, one of the strongest, is a simple rendering of the fabled Harpy, a foul bird-like creature with a human head.

Aoki’s work is staggering in its breadth and detail, if overly intense in content at times. As a first solo effort, however, the paintings and watercolours were impressive, effectively highlighting the artist’s individual talents and exposing a very unique brush.

Carolyn TrippCarolyn Tripp is a Toronto-based artist and writer whose work has been featured at the Contact Photography Festival (Contacting Toronto), the Gladstone Hotel (upArt), the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1 and the Toronto Urban Film Festival. She has been published in Eye Weekly, Broken Pencil, and Spacing and C Magazines.