Clicking through the various collections on show at the Auckland Art Fair earlier this year, I was delighted to came across three exquisitely executed etchings by artist Aiko Robinson. Among the dense foliage of leaves, branches and blossoming flowers swathes of fabric fall loosely around the limbs and torsos of a headless copulating couple. The hands on the wristwatch point to 6 and 9 and the cityscape in the background reminds us that the lovers could be stumbled upon at any moment. Bringing together all these elements of erotic voyeurism, humour, ornate textiles, and the natural world are in direct reference to the traditional Japanese erotic art of shunga, translated as ‘spring pictures’. Shunga rose in popularity during the Edo Period (1600-1868) alongside ukiyo-e, which translates as ‘pictures of the floating world’ depicting dreamy, idealised versions of the city’s pleasure districts and popular leisure activities of the ruling classes.
Robinson first discovered shunga as an undergraduate at Elam School of Fine Arts, University of Auckland, and although initially adopting the genre as a way to shock her professors and rebel against the perception of her work as being too cute and feminine, found a rich tradition of pre-modern erotic art that celebrated sexuality, void of the taboo and shame that surrounds pornography in Western and Japanese society today. Interestingly, she finds herself not only educating Western audiences about shunga but in Japan there is also limited knowledge about this genre, which has only recently been brought to the attention of the global art world though landmark exhibitions such as ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ at the British Museum in 2014.
After graduating, Robinson had planned to have an extended working holiday in Japan but as fate would have it she was the inaugural recipient of the Auckland Print Studio residency providing her the valuable opportunity to delve further into the subject matter producing a stunning suite of lithographs under the guidance of studio manager John Pusateri, who she credits as giving her the encouragement to integrate her explicitly sexual images with her signature visual puns which include mushrooms, mussels, loose screws and pussy cats. This resulted in a string of exhibitions across the country and a scholarship to complete a masters in printmaking at Tokyo University of Fine Arts in 2017.
In contrast to Elam, which was highly concept driven, Tokyo University allowed her to focus on developing her technical skills in printmaking and drawing. Her first year was dedicated to studying traditional woodblock techniques although she was warned from the outset that she would never be a master, due to the rigorous division of labour applied in traditional Japanese print studios, with design, carving and printing being all highly specialised areas in their own right. She noticed that woodblock was more popular with international students and that Japanese students were more concerned with exploring and perfecting intaglio processes. The level of detail and crisp, dense lines that can be achieved in an etching compelled her to explore the process further resulting in some of her most exceptional prints to date.
After accomplishing many printmaking techniques, she has discovered that there isn’t one that captures her interest from beginning to end and instead is attracted to different parts of each process. For woodblock she loves preparing and carving the wood, in etching she enjoys preparing the different paper and putting it through the printing press and she is always amazed by the magical alchemy of lithography. Working across printmaking, drawing and watercolour, her process for each medium is the same, starting with the figures and then adding the details with the aim of drawing the viewer in to spend time with her work. Although the subject matter may cause embarrassment to some audiences, this is by no means her intention, consciously opting for a subdued colour palette and disorientating the viewer with contorted headless figures simultaneously exposed and concealed making it unclear where they begin and end.
Her recent work during the global lockdown has included a series of watercolours with gauache, allowing her to work on a larger scale, experimenting with composition and taking a step back from her use of highly intricate details. These works will be featured alongside some of her etchings from her time in Japan at Fox Jensen McCrory Gallery in Auckland this month and at PG Gallery in Christchurch later this year.
Left to right: Cherry Popped (2016) woodblock on paper, Nuts Growing in Trees (2017) woodblock on paper, Pillow Picture #3 (2020). Watercolour, gouache and ink on paper.
Auckland Print Studio
Fox Jensen McCrory Gallery