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Published on November 2nd, 2012 | by Elizabeth Coleman


Review of “Beauty in Landscape” by Kathy Aoki

In Kathy Aoki’s view of the future, mascara slicks and lipstick tubes will float on the tides after Los Angeles is flooded from global warming. Future excavators will then unearth the Pharaoh Gwen Stefani Mortuary Temple. Artists will attempt to erect a monument to cuteness with a Hello Kitty-themed Mount Rushmore.

In Aoki’s second solo exhibit, “Beauty in Landscape”, now showing at the Swarm Gallery in Oakland, California, Aoki revisits her role as “curator” of the fictitious Museum of Historical Makeovers. In a simulated museum experience — set roughly in the 4th millennium — Aoki presents works that center on the concept of landscape, exploring beauty, gender and cute culture consumerism. She presents these concepts through “ancient” artifacts and historical illustration.

While Aoki’s concepts and illustrations are clever on their own, the real genius is in the commentary she provides on each museum-style label placed next to each piece.  For example, in the Mascara Forest series, the label tells viewers that artist Stephanie Wimper (a fictional character) started painting mascara wand forestscapes after she became fascinated with eyelash essentials. The commentary to the side of the piece notes that the artist first experimented with real mascara, but “found there to be clumping.”

Similarly amusing was the Gwen Stefani Mortuary Temple excavation, which is said to have began in 2468 A.D. In Aoki’s fictitious future, singer Gwen Stefani has achieved cult status and certain “artifacts,” like the canopic jar containing the head of Winston — “Pharoah Stephani’s” favorite sheepdog — is believed to display the people’s undeniable love for their Pharoah.

In the Hello Kitty Monument photo series, the fictional photographer, TS Lensington (who, Aoki tells us, won a Massachusetts State Fair photo award in 2010), captured the failed attempt of one artist to erect a Mount Rushmore-style monument to cuteness in the Yukon Territory. Here, Aoki cleverly slips in a bit of social commentary with a quote from another fictitious character: “It’s just like an American to leave his trash everywhere.”

Even though Aoki’s work is based on fiction, her illustrations very convincingly mimic the style of real historical artists. Much of her work alludes to the work of French artist and cartoonist Honoré Daumier, who famously used his work to comment on the social political life of France in the 19th century. One of Aoki’s hand-colored wood cuts depicting the “Destruction of Glamour Palais” — a beauty-centered theme park which was destroyed in the flooding of Los Angeles — mimics “The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by Japanese artist Hokusai. However, Aoki’s wave is littered with mascara, princess crowns and lipstick tubes.

Overall, Aoki’s exhibition is clever, brashly poking fun at cute consumerism and society’s obsession with beauty. By mimicking historical artists, Aoki’s warning message about the danger of this obsession are easily accessible to a wide audience while maintaining a tongue-in-cheek level of humor.

Kathy Aoki’s exhibit will be on display through November 8, 2012 at the Swarm Gallery in Oakland. For more information, visit or



About the Author

Elizabeth Coleman is an attorney and writer, born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from UCLA and a law degree from Santa Clara University School of Law, where she received a certificate in public interest and social justice and served as an articles editor on their law review. Apart from her legal career, Elizabeth enjoys writing short stories and dabbling in art (the messier, the better!), and previously was a regular contributor to SWOOP Magazine. She has recently started working on her first book, a young adult fantasy novel about lucid dreaming and parallel realities. Read her blog at

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