Walking into the Edward M. Dowd Art Building at Santa Clara University, you may think you have entered the geological history department. However, not all things are as they appear at first glance. The monoliths that welcome students are, in fact, intricate revisions of history, memorializing the destruction of an iconic para-fictional Hello Kitty monument. 

Kathy Aoki’s satirical work lives within the cracked veneer of modern society, driven by concept and executed by any medium necessary. The humor on the surface of her pieces attracts viewers like moths to a flame but quickly gives way to profound introspection. She hopes viewers might examine the pervasiveness of cultural assumptions and corporate fanaticism with a tilted head. Her work, iconoclastic in nature, inflates the absurdity of modern icons until they pop while still treating viewers to intricate and stunning works of art. 

Kathy Aoki is a Silicon Valley artist laureate and Lee and Seymour Graff professor in Santa Clara University’s art and art history department. Her work can be found in major collections across the
United States. 

Growing up on the East Coast, Kathy was exposed to institutions of fine art and feminist issues at a young age. Moving to California in her teens, she experienced new humorous and experimental art genres. She realized, “When work is confrontational, it can be very distancing to a large part of the audience. Not many people will be willing to wade through the anger to get your message.” Earning a master’s degree in printmaking, she later experienced an awakening while visiting the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, known for its anachronistic architecture and exhibits on early technology. She explains, “I realized I was making fake museum work. Sometimes it isn’t easy to think about how I can make things without art history. I am always referencing things.” 

Kathy’s work touches on assumptions about gender, wealth, culture, and history. “Part of my work takes things that seem important now and asks, ‘is this so important that in 400 years we will be visiting museums to learn about it?’ I use institutional presentation styles because those signify value sets from a different time. They were controlled by people with the will or money to make
those selections.” 

Aoki begins with a research topic gleaned from the news or pop culture. By introducing those concepts in a framework, she develops para-fictional narratives based on reality that boil over into a world of fantasy. She adds, “I try to lure viewers in with familiar formats and then slip in my commentary. It is not just conceptual—I want to provide a visual reward. We hold certain expectations, stereotypes, or values as the way things should be, but when you see them shaken up, they become funny. If you are willing to go down the rabbit hole, you get more bang for the buck.”  

Her work leverages traditional styles and ancillary materials to make her fictional narratives seem real. While her original passion for printmaking is still a large portion of her portfolio, she enjoys continuously pushing her technique and allowing the medium to follow her ideas. She adds, “I have done printmaking, sculpture, dioramas, virtual reality, animations, and motion graphics. In that way, my technical skills have expanded far beyond what I was
trained in school.” 

Working as a professor has allowed her to learn through teaching, taking advantage of prior knowledge, and benefiting from a classroom of mistakes and problem-solving. Silicon Valley’s experimental, anything-goes culture has influenced her process. A concept may crystallize in her mind, but she explains, “Everything is always harder than I imagine, but I continue to jump right in, thinking ‘how hard can it be?’ I craft a show based on key pieces that fit exactly into the project. If one piece fails, it creates a hole in the narrative. I am always working on a deadline to bring everything to that level. I don’t have any time for failures.” 

Kathy’s art is filled with questions once a viewer identifies the loopholes within the concept. She believes “artwork has a lasting impact when it brings up questions instead of seeing something and saying, ‘I know that’ and moving on. The imagery is important to me because it allows people to believe. You can’t unsee something.” 

Kathy is taking on a role as Associate Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University, and exhibiting in New Museum Los Gatos beginning in August 2022 and the B. Sakata Garo Gallery in Sacramento in 2023. She is experimenting with new forms of photopolymer intaglio printmaking, with goals of going bigger than ever before, constantly weaving between concept, medium, and approach. Kathy explains, “I hope that people understand the breadth of my work, the ideas behind it and the sense of humor. It is not a hobby. The work is funny, but this is very serious to me.”  

Instagram: kathy_aoki_artist


This article originally appeared in Issue 14.4 “Profiles”