Greg Ito loves symbols.
It can be read as both a literal and a metaphorical statement. His surreal style paintings, often presented in an organized and immersive atmosphere, are filled with various types of coded and repeated symbols: moons, suns, flames, keyholes, butterflies and flowers, to name a few.
Once one is familiar with the inspirations behind the pieces, however, the symbols take on new meanings, but one of the most recent symbols Ito is presenting in his new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Nord is one he’s never done before.
“I’ve never done performance art before, but I do it because there’s this space where I can do these things,” Ito says, referring to the ICA space in Encinitas. “I do this to honor my family’s history.”
The family story behind “All You Can Carry” is both intimidating and moving. Using a combination of paintings, sculptures and altered ephemera (such as Ito’s family photos), and presented in what Ito calls a “large installation environment”, Ito’s exhibition explores memory , ancestry, and most importantly, her grandparents’ history in the internment of Japanese Americans. camps during World War II.
For the performative aspect of the show, which will take place during the March 12 opening, Ito has created a hilltop installation near the Encinitas space that resembles an “imprint of a burning house.” . Designed to look like a garden bed, the installation serves to honor his family’s experience in a more visceral way. Visitors will be invited to plant seeds inside the plot, and at the opening reception, Ito will carry water from the bottom of the hill and water the seeds. The deed is meant to pay homage to the trek his grandfather made to watch over a water tower at the Gila River War Relocation Center in the 1940s.
“For me, carrying water is representative of carrying that grief or trauma,” says Ito, whose grandparents met at Gila River camp. “Some of it is going to spill, some I could use to drink and splash on my face, but I’m going to take away as much as I can and pour it on this sculpture.”
For Ito, a fourth-generation Japanese-American born and raised in Los Angeles, the seriousness of “All You Can Carry” opening the same year as the 80th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 is no not lost on him. The order, signed in 1942, authorized the “evacuation” of those deemed a threat to US national security at the start of the country’s war with Japan. The name of Ito’s exhibit derives directly from what many Japanese Americans learned before being transported to the camps.
“They were basically told they had a week to choose what belongings they wanted to bring, and they were told they could only bring what they could take,” Ito explains as he does a Zoom tour around his home studio in LA
The symbols he uses in his paintings, such as houses and suitcases, are clearly intended to evoke themes of forced internment and the dislocation of his home. Keyholes in paintings, a symbol Ito has used previously in his work, are meant to represent “access,” or lack thereof, to memories and stories that may have been lost to time. . However, within the context of the general themes of “All You Can Carry”, keyholes can also be seen as representing access to the American Dream, as well as the narrow scope through which we can look at the experiences of others navigating through that dream.
“I’ve done all these exhibits that draw on my Japanese-American heritage and history, but with previous exhibits, it was kind of buried,” Ito says. “It’s surfaced more and more where I’m more comfortable sharing the full story of their experience through art.”
With the paintings and sculptures—as well as the installations, family photos, and ephemera—the result almost feels like the viewer is walking among beautiful ruins, able to see new possibilities among the rubble.
“I feel like experience is a very important tool for artists, to create experience,” says Ito, who is quick to point out that he wanted to create something where the pieces complement each other – loops. interiors of color and content that seem interconnected. but not forced or coercive.
“There’s a part of me that thinks it’s an underutilized mechanism in art,” Ito says. “People say that a painting exhibition that is also an installation is a bit like a gimmick to improve paintings. But that – the content, the narratives, the formal aesthetic of the artwork – they all spill over into multiple mediums and multiple ways of forging those ideas. Everything informs each other.
Ito has honed this approach since returning to Los Angeles from San Francisco, where he attended the San Francisco Art Institute. The first time I encountered his work was at a 2016 exhibition at the Steve Turner Gallery in Los Angeles. This exhibition, titled “Soothsayer”, used this contrasting symbolism in the same register structures as artists like Mark Rothko in his “Color Field” paintings. In these paintings, as well as those in the ICA exhibition, Ito has perfected an effervescent, enveloping use of color and design that aims to elicit emotional responses from the viewer – responses that the artist himself has explored during the pandemic and, more eagerly, since becoming a father.
“I wanted to understand how work connects to me,” Ito says. “I create these situations for people to visually and physically enter the space, but how does that connect to me? Which makes these emotional responses a unique product of my human experience and my identity as a Japanese American.
Ito says the experience of starting a family during the pandemic forced him to deal with many of the same reservations his grandparents likely had when starting their own families. While he doesn’t compare the two directly, he says he can’t help but think his grandparents had some of the same reservations as him, but ultimately it’s family that helps you through this trauma, even if this trauma is shared.
“People had children during the Great Depression, during the war, and that gave me hope,” Ito says. “That helped pave the way for this exhibition. It has given me the confidence to continue doing what I love and knowing that you are doing all of this for your family and the experience of the previous generation will guide me.
“Greg Ito: All You Can Carry”
When: Open from noon to 5 p.m. Thursday to Sunday. The exhibition runs until May 15. Opening and artist conference will take place on March 12 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Or: Institute of Contemporary Art North, 1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas
Admission: Pay as you wish
Call: (760) 436-6611
In line: www.icasandiego.org
Seth Combs is a freelance writer.