Harumi Yamaguchi

Project Native Informant
26 Holborn Viaduct, Morley House, 3rd Floor
April 20, 2017–May 20, 2017

Harumi Yamaguchi, Roller Skate, 1977, acrylic on board, 20 x 28 1/2".

In the 1970s, fashion illustrator Harumi Yamaguchi attained cult status with her “Harumi Gals,” a series of popular print and television advertisements that helped usher in an era of loosening gender roles in Japan, while simultaneously reinventing Parco, the trendsetting Shibuya department-store chain later revered for its progressive ad campaigns. (This same company would bring us the visual sublimity of Faye Dunaway delicately nibbling at a hard-boiled egg for a 1979 TV spot.)

Harumi Gals offered the epitome of late-1970s eye-shadow chic and nascent 1980s glamour, with full pouty lips corralled by chiseled cheekbones, and long, slender limbs rendered with the same poured-silk sheen as the fabrics ever-so-casually slipping off of them. Mediating between cheesecake pin-ups and Barbie in her best pink power suit, Yamaguchi’s aggressive embrace of female sexuality glides along the Beyoncéan divide between empowerment and exploitation—that winking, complicit kind of exploitation—the one that tells you it’s your body, and you can train it to ruthless Robert Palmer–ready perfection if you want to. In a Virginia Slims twist, this lipstick cosmopolitanism came to be shorthand for Japan’s rising class of modern-minded working girls, despite (or perhaps because of) the Gals’ expressly Westernized faces.

But Yamaguchi never took herself, nor her Gals, too seriously, liberally applying a camp sensibility with her airbrush. For every pair of suggestive scarlet lips suckling a Coca-Cola bottle, there’s a model crudely gnawing at an oversize celery stalk or wrestling with a water hose. In the exquisite oddity of Marbles Woman, 1982, a disembodied head protrudes from a pile of shiny baubles, like a glammed-up gumball, while Roller Skate, 1977, depicts a semisapphic tangle of limbs in a cashmere-sweatered collision. Klutzy though they may be, Yamaguchi’s cover girls manage to never muss their makeup. After all, they woke up like that.

Kate Sutton