Artist Emi Kuraya (born in 1995) is presenting her first solo show Walking in the Sky in Paris. Her latest series of paintings and drawings feature a female protagonist, plunging viewers into the world of young Japanese city girls, both real and dreamlike.
In 2018, while still a student at Tokyo's Tama Art University, Emi Kuraya was invited to join Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki group. Murakami was fascinated by her universe, heavily inspired by anime characters, and rendered in the medium of oil painting. For a few years now, the artist has been portraying scenes of everyday life in a figurative and slightly surreal style, showing young women hesitantly transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. We see these modest heroines alone in city environments, the subway, parks, or roadsides. Sometimes they are in the company of a lover or dog, indoors or outdoors, in summer or winter, in a coat or a dashing miniskirt.
Embodying archetypal characters or resembling self-portraits, the figures are always depicted with large eyes and expressions that range from joy to sadness. They appear to have been lifted straight from the world of manga or anime films, which Emi Kuraya has been deeply immersed in since childhood. Apart from the video games she used to play with her brother, she is particularly fond of the magazines Ciao and Nakayoshi, shojo mangas aimed at a female audience. She also loves animes such as Kirarin Revolution, Mirmo de Pon!, Toradora!, and K-ON!, as well as films by Mamoru Hosoda and Akio Watanabe. Her work is inspired by their clear, well-defined lines, focus on a single action and dynamic elements.
"The sources for my female figures can be found everywhere in my everyday life. From close friends to anime characters, selfies found on social media, and people I see on the street, all those who come into sight and have an impression on me become sources for my work. Elements such as their trivial habits and momentary facial expressions accumulate within me and are reflected in the characters I depict. In the same way that sentences come together to form a novel, various parts come together to form one girl."
Emi Kuraya's art belongs to a new type of genre painting, using oil paint and delicate variations of color and light to depict everyday scenes that appear straightforward or mysterious. Her views of landscapes or cities are often based on personal photographs, complemented by snapshots she finds on social media or other images of contemporary society. Due to the global lockdown, particularly strict in her home country, she was compelled to engage in deep introspection, working closely with family, friends, and her own image.
While some works convey a sense of melancholy that could be interpreted as a reflection of contemporary isolation, others depict unrestrained joy and laughter. Their meaning is always open-ended and ambiguous. The new series focuses on nature and landscapes, suggesting an environmental aspect. Yet, the artist remarks that it also conveys a sense of freedom and flight. The fact that she almost exclusively depicts women can be read as a deliberate commitment to her own sex. But she never expressly asserts this, blurring the lines by playing with symbols that are perhaps too quickly interpreted as erotic, such as micro-skirts, innocent looks, and pigtails.
Emi Kuraya insists she is more interested in dismantling and deconstructing preconceived ideas, even those she herself developed in her previous works. She never wants to impose a single viewpoint or perspective but encourages us to slip into one of the depicted roles. She also pays discreet visual homage to those she admires in the history of art, like Lucas Cranach – she is mesmerized by the gaze of his figures – or Paul Gauguin in his moving quest for self-knowledge.
In recent years, Emi Kuraya has been focusing on her inner self while exploring the concept of "physicality." She is interested in the relationship between self-knowledge and the outside world, analyzing the link that unites or the barrier that separates these two realms. Some of her works bear witness to the absence of loved ones or invoke the mysticism of nature while always remaining firmly anchored in contemporary culture. She mentions Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara as Japanese artists who, like her, have challenged established rules through formal innovation, but also Mr., for his cartoon-like aesthetic, and ob, with her glaze-like backgrounds. But she's just as passionate about the ruins of Pompeii or the Yokohama Doll Museum, showcasing relics of ancient knowledge.
In gradually evolving formats, her own characters move through worlds that are both realistic and fantastical, unified by a technique that emphasizes the transparency and vibrancy of the brushstroke – notably by using very thin layers of paint. The artist prefers to work on a Gesso background, as it provides substance and roughness to the canvas, allowing her colors to appear soft and nuanced. These tones recall the effects of tempera, conveying a timelessness that reflects the artist's evolving relationship with the world. How do you project a part of your inner self while at the same time presenting a general image of women? How to be yourself and others? That's what the portrayed figures are about. Everyone can identify with them, closely or from a distance, like the beginning of a new story, which Emi Kuraya deliberately leaves wide open.
Born in Kanagawa, Japan
Lives and works in Kanagawa, Japan
Emi Kuraya, born in 1995, is one of the most interesting and refreshing new voices in the contemporary Japanese art panorama. A graduate of Tokyo’s Tama Art University, in spite of her young age Kuraya has already had a few high-profile solo shows, in Japan and at Perrotin Seoul and Perrotin Shanghai, and has been exhibited at Art Basel in Basel, Hong Kong and also at Frieze New York, receiving wide acclaim for the freshness, and the deep layers of meaning that make her work so captivating. Since 2018, Kuraya has been a member of Kaikai Kiki, the art society founded by Takashi Murakami.