Visual Vernacular: Aki Neumann
Aki Neumann, “Interior Diptych (Right),” 2023 (detail)
Examining the relationship between the observer and the observed, painter Aki Neumann shows the dynamics of this intertwined arrangement with tonal colors and landscapes. The subdued yet rich motifs ripple through the body of work with stately forms and objects maintaining intriguing focus on the plain of the paper. Using a Eastern sense of composition with traditional vases, water, and other objects, Neumann makes a style her own with a steady and powerful hand. The layers of strokes paired with imagery is where Neumann’s work thrives, revealing a meditative escape within the range of white, tan and black. In her most recent show, Neumann offered the companion pieces of mirrors, distilled down from the brush strokes and shapes presented in her compositions on paper. These lovely pieces are calls to action, a moment of self reflection of oneself in relation to the pieces and to the space. When glancing back at the paper, the viewer has a newfound appreciation for the interiors and figures allowing for a deeper experience with Neumann’s play on perspective. Preparing for her journey overseas to start her Fulbright Scholarship, Neumann answered some questions about how she combines her palate, paper, and perspective into her pieces.
Free Press Houston: How was art a part of your life growing up?
Aki Neumann: Art-making and art-appreciation have always been there. I made stuff as a kid with as much vehemence as I make things now. Returning to the joy and drive that I had in making things as a kid is new, though. There was a long and confused period spanning adolescence to a couple years ago where I made things without any trace of myself in it.
This is how my mom describes being young: You’re a kid and you’re very much yourself and then adolescence hits and a crippling self-awareness grabs hold and it takes you up till you’re about 22 to conquer it and return to yourself. This pretty accurately describes my experience growing up and growing up with art.
FPH: What are some of the concepts you draw from to create your work?
Neumann: Throughout the creation of my current series, PARADISE, I found myself entrenched in the genre of Orientalist painting. Orientalism is the study of the West observing the East and the inherent colonialist attitudes that are imbued within subsequent representations. The dynamic between looking and being looked at is perplexing and problematic and has provided a rich jumping off point for my projects. Vases, clouds, snakes, folding screens, and other motifs of Orientalism reoccur throughout my work and are informed by the works of Jean Leon Gerome, Henri Rousseau, Matisse, Gauguin, and the decorative arts of the Art Deco period.
FPH: What is your process when you work on paper?
Neumann: My media is acryla-gouache on archival paper, and my process is essentially just a long string of repetitions. Each painting gets done and redone three or four times before a final version is landed upon. This process is absolutely impractical and wasteful and leaves a trail of incomplete, unevolved paintings behind it. I’m a creature of habit.
FPH: In your latest show, how did you decide to use mirrored pieces in juxtaposition with the paper pieces?
Neumann: The term “paradise” inhabits this ambiguous middle ground between religious depictions of heaven and fantasies of the exotic. The term illustrates an ephemeral place that exists exclusively within perception and that is ultimately an illusion. This concept surfaces within my paintings on paper through passages of alternate worlds, through environments depicted on screens, images reflected in mirrors, and landscapes suspended by clouds. Continuing this concept via paint on mirror seemed like a fluid next step. The painted areas of the mirrors are isolated and float ethereally, creating a surface level that obscures a fluctuating and incongruous reflected image. Mirrors provide the opportunity for me to create worlds inside worlds, introducing multiple layers and dimensions into a 2-dimensional surface.
FPH: How do you bring visual perspective into your pieces and how do you hope a viewer interacts with your pieces?
Neumann: As an artist, I think that all you can demand of your audience is just for them to look. For someone to look at my work is already such a gesture that it requires no further expectation. Though concept is a necessary component of my creation process, I don’t consider it to be a necessary component of my viewership’s experience. When I paint, the goal is to create a tone: expectation, suspicion, serenity. If a painting carries tone, I feel success.
FPH: What has your artistic experience been like here in Houston?
Neumann: Houston has been good to me. All of the pieces within my current exhibition were created during my time here in Houston. This facet of the show holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been here just a few days shy of a full year now. Good fortune brought me to the doorstep of Common House, Bea Ying Projects, and to my dear friend Arie Thrasher, pretty early on in my time here. Arie and I have been plotting this show since day one and she has been my little guardian angel ever since. Houston’s been good to me. I’m glad I found myself here and I’m sad to go.
FPH: Any upcoming projects you would like to mention? Tell us a bit about your upcoming travels with your Fulbright scholarship.
Neumann: Yes. In few days, I ship out to Budapest, Hungary, where I have been funded by a Fulbright Scholarship of the Arts to live and paint for nine months, which seems like a pretty tight deal. Its a future so near and so foreign that I have no idea what to expect, though I do expect good things. If you would like to follow my projects abroad, you can do so on Instagram.
PARADISE is on view at NeNo Sudios (1506 Lorraine St. #A) Thursday and Friday from 7 to 9 pm and Saturday, August 27 noon to 5 pm, or by appointment.