Gallery Hopping: ‘Harumi’s Gals’ Embody Retro Japan’s Perfect Woman at Project Native Informant

Harumi Yamaguchi's illustrations depict the ideal woman: ambitious, sensual, stylish—and unrealistic.

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Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Fight Mode (1976). Courtesy Project Native Informant.
Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Dryer (1977). Courtesy Project Native Informant.
Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Hand Picking the Shirt (1974). Courtesy Project Native Informant.
Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Red Stole (1985). Courtesy Project Native Informant.
Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Big Court (1985). Courtesy Project Native Informant.
Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Lying on Ice (1979). Courtesy Project Native Informant.
Harumi Yamaguchi at Project Native Informant
Harumi Yamaguchi, Dress Up (1983). Courtesy Project Native Informant.

In the Japanese artist’s first solo exhibition outside of Asia, London’s Project Native Informant presents a selection of historical works, ranging from 1974 through 1985, by Harumi Yamaguchi.

Yamaguchi originally trained as a painter at the Tokyo University of the Arts before working as an advertising illustrator for PARCO, a popular Japanese department store that incorporates other cultural elements—such as a museum, theater, and publishing house—into its structure and branding.

Herself being a woman employed by a high-profile retailer, Yamaguchi was naturally well-suited to produce advertisements aimed towards females in the workforce.

As such, the illustrations Yamaguchi created for PARCO depict several versions of the modern, career-oriented woman who also manages to be style-savvy and on-trend. (One might also take note of the shifts in fashion as the works progress through different eras of style.)

“Harumi’s gals,” as these drawings and fictional characters are known, portray confident women who are at once driven, fashionable, and—perhaps most importantly—completely self-assured in their abilities, appearance, and sexuality.

For instance, one is shown blow-drying a mane of lustrous hair, while another is seen kneeling on all fours in a tiger-like position, lips parted in a provocative snarl. All are presented in active stances, and most engage the viewer with direct, unabashed eye contact.

Despite the fact that PARCO operates solely in Japan, the drawings are strictly of white women with Western features. This is perhaps indicative of the cultural preferences that dominated 1970s and 80s Japan, and how PARCO might have adjusted marketing strategies to cater to such inclinations.

In an essay published alongside the exhibition “Women of the 70s PARCO Poster Exhibition 1969-1986” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 2001, Japanese sociologist Chizuko Ueno wrote that “while appearing to adhere to the scenario of male-tailored eroticism, Yamaguchi deconstructs male desire through her exaggerative depictions. As a consequence, the female body is idealized to a realm unreachable by male hands.”

Harumi Yamaguchi: Selected Works 1974—1985” is on view through May 20 at Project Native Informant, Morley House, 3rd Floor, 26 Holborn Viaduct, London EC1A 2AQ.


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