The creature has no eyes, but nevertheless looks hyper-aware and sensory. Elvish ears, a snout of grey, fungusy fur, pert whiskers. And, unexpectedly, an Adam’s apple.
This is a Kodama – a tree spirit from Japanese folklore – by Vini Naso. When he’s not making short films, concept designs and AR/VR for brands and entertainment corporations, he makes art that reimagines myths, folklore and the writings of Carl Jung.
The Kodama collection, which won the Beautiful Bizarre ZBrush Digital Art Award in 2020, is Vini’s take on the green man legend.
“I made it in lockdown,” he says. “I was craving for nature, yearning to walk on a footpath. It made me think about the green man, which we’ve represented since ancient times in many changing ways. I wanted to make my own green man.” He found the answer in another of his passions, Japanese poetry, and the Kodama Japanese tree spirits. The result is this felty, pelty race of sprites – part biped, part elk, part reindeer, part antelope, part fieldmouse.
Faces are the focus of another of Vini’s collections, The Masks We Wear, which was profiled in Vogue Italia in 2020. These masks, though, have a radically different signature – a vibrant mix of tribal paint, fabrics, darkness and brass. And absolutely no green.
This piece is called Iwazaru’s Silence. A filigree butterfly held over the mouth like a coyly deployed fan, penetrating brass eyes. That hand, just visible, carries much expression. Might it move aside? What would the mouth look like? Around the head, is that a circle of light, a hat or a halo?
This is The Jester, part clown, part futuristic fairground barker, part Clockwork Orange. And I don’t want to meet it on a dark night.
This mask, the Moth Orchid, has a clear Samurai influence.
It might be hard to reconcile Vini’s masks with the bosky moss-punk of Kodama, but they spring from the same origin – a deep awareness of mythology, costumes and masks. It comes from his own roots in Brazil.
“Growing up in Rio, Carnival was a huge thing for me. In our suburb we had our own festival, the Bate-bola, which draws from ancient European carnival traditions and African rituals. When I was five years old I remember going out and seeing people dressed up as monsters. I was scared. They looked like visitors from another world. Then all of a sudden they revealed themselves as my friends and I wasn’t afraid any more. As a kid that sort of transformation is magical, a surreal mixture of delight and terror.”
Vini made a series of images to celebrate Bate-bola.
Imagine you’re five years old and you see these creatures. The colors, the fixed and faintly threatening smiles, the frilly parasols. Also, the chevron leggings – a disturbing modern twist that makes them more real. Most striking is their expressions, burning with pre-performance purpose, eager for your answering gasp of terror.
After meeting the bate-bolas, Vini found his own purpose.
“I read encyclopaedias. I read everything I could about tribes and cultures, their drawings and costumes. I was fascinated by what it is to make art. I never took formal training but I was always drawing. I loved aesthetics and style and visual language; comics and animation as well, which is why I became interested in motion graphics and design. Even today, research is part of the process that I love, the learning before I start a collection. And not just visual art – literature and history too. I always wanted to make personal work to share that love.”
Brazil was full of inspiration. “Brazil is a melting pot – African, European, native, it’s all together. Even within my own family – my grandfather is Black and his grandfather is Native American, so I have that in my recent DNA.”
Vini sees this as a profound story of mankind. “When one culture meshes with another they merge their aesthetics.” This is where Carl Jung comes in. He became fascinated by Jung and the cultural heritage that is common to us all; the idea of archetypes in psychology, a world myth that we all share, buried deep inside the mind.
“I read Carl Jung and the collective unconscious. Also Joseph Campbell and the universal hero’s journey, which we can recognise in many cultures. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you’ll have archetypes; everyone makes them somehow. The hero, the king, the father figure, the mother, the shadow – all of those are embedded in our psyche. I like to represent that visually because I can reach everyone who feels connected to that. They might not know what it comes from, but I hope they recognise it.”
You’ve already met The Jester. This is The Raven. They are faces from our deepest dreams.
This is Ether’s Dilemma, inspired by the wounded healer archetype.
Sometimes, Vini is surprised by interpretations his work receives. “I made the masks long before lockdown, but people thought I was commenting on the pandemic – how everyone has to wear a mask and can’t show their face. That’s interesting, and it made me realize it wasn’t what I meant at all. For me, the mask is not something that covers, it’s something that reveals. It reveals part of your psyche, something you’re not allowed to express. That’s very Carl Jung. The costumes of Carnival allow that. You can be a monster because you’re wearing a costume. You can perform the shadow part of your psyche that you’re not in touch with until you wear the mask. It’s about getting to know yourself.”
Faces are an invitation to the viewer. We look into them, in a way we can’t in real life. And Vini’s masks also look into us.
This is Barong’s Smile.
This is Against All Logic.
He says a piece can take a day to develop, or a couple of weeks. But a lot of preparation is done beforehand. He’ll work on several collections at once. “I keep researching, working on one, thinking about the next, taking notes, gathering inspiration. I don’t like to force anything.”
Some ideas arise as he plays with software. The masks came while he was exploring Substance. “I created a texture and it was perfect for a thing I wanted to do… such a fun way of creating textures. I made the masks, the pattern for the faces, and that was the beginning of the series.” Aside from Substance, his favourite tools are ZBrush for modeling, Cinema 4D for design and animation, Redshift for renders, Xparticles, and Marvelous Designer for cloth simulation. He also uses 3ds Max, Maya, Photoshop and Illustrator.
He prefers to create collections, rather than standalone pieces. “A collection makes you think cohesively about aesthetics and ideas. And for me, a one-off is not enough. With a collection you can tell more of a story.”
These colorful fellows are a very different mood – an homage to Bauhaus and the Triadic Ballet from the 1910s and 1920s.
“Bauhaus is a huge influence on every visual artist,” says Vini. “This ballet inspired me because of the simple shapes. I wanted to make my own playful take on those aesthetics.”
Though they are playful, they still express Vini’s sense of a universal culture. The collection is called Archetypes.
“The yellow guy is the alchemist, the wise one. The red one is the warrior.”
His first personal series was Concrete Vibration, made in 2017.
He made it by creating patterns from a piece of music (by friends at the Cypheraudio creative sound studio), then applying them on a sphere. “They looked like planets or Dyson spheres – megastructures that aliens could create around a sun to capture its energy – so I decided to create a universe of them, as if we were able to see them in space.”
Here’s the original music with Vini’s shapes – a bit retro sci-fi, a bit Death Star.
When he laid the music shapes out flat, they became an alien language.
“Concrete Vibration is a way of turning music, which has no physicality, into something you can hold. I felt that concrete as a presentation was clean, and easy to manipulate. Also I’d just been to Japan and was fascinated by the architecture, which was mostly concrete walls and spaces. I wanted to print a piece of music on a sphere.”
He actually did this, for real. “I made a concrete sphere with the pattern. I 3D-printed the mould, and poured concrete in. It sat on my desk.”
I’m eager to see the sphere, but sadly, it didn’t survive. “It broke after a while,” he says.
It’s worth enlarging these images. The detail is exquisite in clarity, like a view into the galaxy from the James Webb Space Telescope.
Perhaps Vini’s coolest credit is the art direction on the pre-titles for an episode of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, made with the Tendril Collective design and animation studio. I ask if he had direct conversations with @NeilHimself. He didn’t – but admit it, you’d ask too. Nevertheless, Vini says it was one of his favourite projects. “It’s half commercial, half art. I directed the characters. It was such fun.”
Vini frequently works with Tendril, and between commissions they make short, experimental pieces to show clients what they can do. On the website you can see a prototype for a computer game, an installation of urban projections and a set of Tarot cards. A Vini Naso Tarot deck would be awesome. Did he print a set? “We didn’t; they were just a bit of fun on Instagram for clients at Halloween. But maybe we could.”
My favourite of Vini’s Tendril experiments is Sankhara, a haunting VR video of a voyage through outer space with a reading of TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. “I love space and exploration,” he says, “but I didn’t want to do a cold scene. When you’re in VR, it’s very immersive. You feel isolated. It’s a perfect place to enjoy poetry. I felt those lines by Eliot were describing the beginning of the universe, an astronaut who is seeing planets and stars being born. It felt like the two things connected very well. I’m always spearheading the new frontiers at the studio, trying to make something cool out of a new medium.” He says this with a gentle laugh, and I can guess how the conversation goes. Vini is the guy who’ll say, “Trust me, we’ll put poetry onto a space journey and it will be awesome” .
How does he recharge? “The usual,” he says. “Travelling, seeing art, going to different places. Going to nature.” But his biggest recharge is meditation. “I like to be isolated. I let my mind empty and allow other ideas in.”
He has done silent retreats. “Ten days. No speaking, no talking to anyone, no cell phones. No writing. No reading. I did the retreat three times, which must mean I really like it.”
But he could make art, right?
“No. I had a lot of inspiration. I found myself thinking ‘I have to write this down, I’m gonna forget’, and then I thought no, follow the protocol. It’s just you and your practice. You’re there to dive deep into your subconscious and discover the whole world inside of you that you don’t pay attention to in daily life. You go to a place you don’t go usually.”
He puts the same patience into concepting his personal artwork. “I don’t start a piece unless I have a clear picture of what I want to do. If it’s not clear for me, it won’t be clear for the person experiencing it. It won’t be an honest piece.”
He has learned this can’t be rushed. “I can’t work as fast as some artists. I need to find the depth. I feel there’s another layer of reality that most people don’t pay attention to. I’m trying to understand the mind – how it works, how it makes sense of everything around us, what happens after life, why we do things a certain way. Scientists explore the universe and try to understand matter and dark matter. For me, the mind is the same thing, you can use the mind as a telescope to look inwards.”
Technology is a significant inspiration for him, especially AI. AI concepting gave him this piece – Anatta , from the Buddhist idea of non-self. “I got an interesting shape with a helmet and visor, then I made the rest.”
“I’ve been using AI a lot for concepting. it’s a great tool for that. If I had a magic wand, I’d plug an AI into my brain and pour the picture out, straight to the screen. But it would be from my brain, not from the AI’s brain. There’s a lot of suspicion about AI because a machine is doing the work, but your input is driving the AI. It’s not the AI that’s driving you.”
To learn more about Adobe’s principles and approach to AI ethics, please see this post by Grace Yee.
He sees this as the future. “In the creative world, AI will accelerate things so much. It’s like the camera. Nobody thought the camera was going to be a tool for artists. Then artists developed skills that distinguished them from the everyday camera user. I think AI will be the same. There will be people who’ll use it for fun, and there will be others who’ll use it with care and thought. It’s hard to know where it will go. For now, it’s a black box.”
A black box seems the perfect vehicle for Vini’s mission; his voyage into race memories, universal meanings, to bring us the faces we recognise without knowing why. A black box to unravel another black box – the deep subconscious, the dark matter of the human mind and soul.