At Institute of Contemporary Art, Greg Ito explores ancestry
‘All You Can Carry,’ a new immersive exhibition at ICA San Diego North in Encinitas, mixes visual art and performance — all ‘to honor my family’s story,’ artist says
Greg Ito is big on symbols.
This can be read as both a literal and metaphorical statement. His surrealist-style paintings, often presented in a curated, immersive atmosphere, are filled with varying kinds of coded and repeated symbols: moons, suns, flames, keyholes, butterflies and flowers, to name a few.
Once someone is familiar with the inspirations behind the pieces, however, the symbols take on new meanings, but one of the newer symbols Ito is presenting within his new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art North is one he’s never done before.
“I’ve never done performance art before, but I’m doing it because there is this space where I can do these things,” Ito says, referring to the ICA space in Encinitas. “I’m doing it to honor my family’s story.”
The family story behind “All You Can Carry” is both daunting and emotive. Using a combination of paintings, sculpture and modified 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 pressingly, his grandparents’ history in Japanese American internment camps during World War II.
For the performative aspect of the show, which will take place at the March 12 opening, Ito created a hilltop installation near the Encinitas space that resembles a “footprint of a house that was on fire.” Meant to resemble a garden bed, the installation serves to honor his family’s experience in a more visceral manner. Visitors will be asked to plant seeds inside the plot and, during the opening reception, Ito will carry water from the bottom of the hill and water the seeds. The act is meant to pay tribute 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 the water is representative of carrying that grief or that trauma,” says Ito, whose grandparents met at the Gila River camp. “Some of it will spill out, some of it I might use to drink and splash my face, but I’ll carry as much as I can and pour it on this sculpture.”
For Ito, a fourth-generation Japanese American born and raised in L.A., the gravity of “All You Can Carry” opening the same year as the 80th anniversary of President Franklin Roosevelt signing Executive Order 9066 isn’t lost on him. The order, signed in 1942, authorized the “evacuation” of those deemed a national security threat to the U.S. in the early days of the country’s war with Japan. The name of Ito’s exhibition directly derives from what many Japanese Americans were told before they were transported to the camps.
“They were basically told they had a week to choose what belongings they wanted to bring, and they were told that they could only bring what they could carry,” says Ito as he gives a Zoom tour around his home studio in L.A.
The symbols he uses within his paintings, such as the houses and suitcases, are clearly meant to invoke the themes of forced internment and dislocation from one’s home. The keyholes in the paintings, a symbol Ito has used previously in his work, are meant to represent “access,” or lack thereof, to memories and narratives that have been perhaps lost to time. However, within the context of the overall themes of “All You Can Carry,” the keyholes can also be seen as representing access to the American dream, as well as the narrow scope through which we can look at others’ experiences navigating this dream.
“I’ve done all these exhibitions that are inspired by my Japanese American heritage and history, but with previous shows, it was kind of buried,” Ito says. “It’s been surfacing more and more to where I’m more comfortable sharing the full story of their experience through the art.”
Along with the paintings and sculptures — as well as the installations, family pictures and ephemera — the result almost feels as if the viewer is walking among beautiful ruins, able to see new possibilities among the wreckage.
“I feel like experience is a very important tool for artists, to create an experience,” says Ito, who is quick to point out that he wanted to create something where the pieces complemented one another — internal loops of color and content that feels interconnected but not forced or coercive.
“There’s a part of me that think it’s an underused mechanism in art,” Ito says. “People say that a painting show that’s also an installation is kind of like a gimmick to make the paintings better. But this — the content, the narratives, the formal aesthetics of the art work — they’re all overflowing into multiple mediums and multiple ways of forging these ideas. Everything informs one another.”
Ito has been perfecting this approach since moving back to L.A. 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 L.A. That show, titled “Soothsayer,” used that contrasting symbolism within the same registry structures as artists like Mark Rothko in his “Color Field” paintings. In those paintings, as well as the ones 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 been exploring during the pandemic and, more pressingly, since he became a father.
“I wanted to figure out how the work connects to me,” Ito says. “I’m creating these situations for people to enter, visually and physically in the space, but how does it connect to me? What makes these emotional responses uniquely a product of my human experience and my identity as a Japanese American.”
Ito says the experience of beginning a family during the pandemic forced him to confront many of the same reservations his grandparents likely had when they were starting their own family. While he doesn’t directly compare the two, he says he can’t help but feel that his grandparents had some of the same reservations he had, but that, ultimately, it’s family that helps you get through that trauma, even if that trauma is shared.
“People were having children during the Great Depression, during war, and it gave me hope,” Ito says. “It helped pave the way for this exhibition. It gave me the confidence to keep doing what I love and know that you’re doing all this for your family and the previous generation’s experience will guide me.”
‘Greg Ito: All You Can Carry’
When: Open noon to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Exhibition runs through May 15. Opening reception and artist talk will be held March 12 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Institute of Contemporary Art North, 1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas
Admission: Pay as you wish
Phone: (760) 436-6611
Seth Combs is a freelance writer.
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