Alex Ito graduated Pratt less than half a decade ago, but the maturity with which he creates has helped position him as one of the most prominent young artists in New York. From his early work with collective The Still House Group to his most current show at Brooklyn’s Hotel Art Pavilion - he has never wavered from the deeply thoughtful and future focused approach that made his point of view so captivating from the very onset of his career. Much like some of the great Sci-fi films we discuss in this interview, Alex has a way of digesting and repackaging painful collective memories into output which makes you totally reimagine your own perspective on an issue. His pieces often create a false sense of security, which lures you deep down a rabbit hole of self realization. We asked Alex (alongside Sydney Shen, Oliver Payne, and Marcelo Gomes) to produce a T-shirt for our current residency at 190 Bowery in Manhattan - below we talk a bit about that and more.
You’ve spoken about how you enjoy creating emotional distance from your own work, sometimes achieving this by having your pieces industrially produced. Do you consider the t-shirt graphic you made for Totokaelo to be an extension of this practice?
The work I create tries to channel its conceptual and emotional energy through media structures. This comes through tropes in graphic design, interior design or furniture. I'm concerned with how a visual structures house rhetoric and make it accessible for its audience. For the shirt I made for Totokaelo, I wasn't necessarily thinking about the shirt as a canvas but more as a space of engagement and action. We choose what we want to wear and it reflects how we perceive ourselves and politics. With my work leaning heavily on text and design, I wanted to create a message that i would wear everyday; something that I could feel spreads a constructive energy but also acts as critical engagement. In this sense, the shirt was an interesting challenge because how can you convey the type of emotional weight we carry in a flat image on a shirt? I think the end product represents the core energy of my practice.
Can you tell us a little more about the graphic you produced for the shirt? How do the words ‘Minor but Many’ relate to the alien object you framed with them?
The format of the design comes from a series of paintings I did for a solo show in Los Angeles at AALA in 2016. Each painting repeatedly depicted the image of a decanter with varying texts on each that challenged hierarchies of power and class. For the image on the Totokaelo shirt, I decided to warp the image of the decanter so it felt more foreign and irregular as an object while also attempting to skew the image of class behind the luxury object. The words that accompanied the image, "Minor But Many", is an homage to those who have felt marginalized by prejudices of race, gender, sexual orientation and more. Together, the image embraces our "social irregularities" and advocates for collectivity and community.
I had a feeling the wording referred loosely to something of that nature, especially considering how openly you have tackled racism and immigration issues in the past. Your work is highly conceptual, but it also feels intensely practical. Often times you design environments that I would feel very comfortable living in - or you make paintings that feel like they are selling me a product I really want. Is this something you think about? Do you secretly want to be an interior designer or advertising agent?
There is definitely an angle in the work that uses popular tropes and strategies or design and advertising. However, what I want to advertise is less of a "how to live comfortably" perspective, but or more a "how to live uncomfortably" perspective. I don't think that my work is overtly uncomfortable by any means, but there is a coldness and aridness to it that provokes a sense of uncanniness in the structures and compositions I make. That moment of questioning is important to how I want my take on advertising to function to create a "critical advertisement".
As you mentioned earlier, the lustrous shape in the graphic you made for us is similar to those from paintings in Act I: The Crucible’s Nest. The strange oblong object seems to slightly resemble vases by a designer like Georg Jensen. How influenced are you by commercial designers? Do you one day see your amorphous and amphibian homewares in living rooms nationwide?
I am less concerned with specific commercial designers than I am with the larger Modern Design movement in general. Modernity hailed a wave of amazing design but through a narrow lens of social progress. It was built to expand and evolve our experiences of everyday life through light, space, innovation and more but through a very specific Western colonial narrative. My work references those design legacies to create another perspective on the project of Modernity- one that isn't so clean, slick and pretty. I've created tables with human bodies embedded in them, seating arrangements that are between tv-dinners and a prison, and recently created structures that reference the Castiglioni Arco lamp that look more like a planet that has rusted away. Rather than imagining my work as utilitarian objects for the future home, they express a darker side of when ideas of the future fail us.
That darker side seems to be strongly influenced by the eerily sterile environments of 70’s Sci-Fi films such as Solaris, The Model Couple, or THX-1138. Is this something you are actively trying to channel, or is it just naturally how your brain visualizes the concepts you are aiming to convey?
The general aesthetic of the work comes from an effort to create a sense of alienation as well as empathy in the work. I want to construct spaces that seem both foreign and familiar, like a home you've forgotten or an intimate space growing from ruin. I think the Sci-Fi connection come naturally because it draws on that same energy, like in Solaris with the "visitors" being alien manifestations of the past and questioning the relationships between what is human and what is not. But overall, I wouldn't want to frame the work in the visual vernacular of Sci-Fi but more in the realm of the unfamiliar within everyday life.
You have a lot of wildlife in your work, but it is almost always in a precarious state - like trees balancing on steel poles, mice trapped in water glasses, paint coated flowers and so on. Do you think confronting the decimation of natural environments is key to any artist trying to deal with futuristic themes?
The use of taxidermy in the work strives to create an access point of empathy within the work. I think that you could take the contexts of living material like that in many directions, whether it be environment or the relationship to natural things. I'm interested in creating that starting point for empathy by using materials that seem alive, warm and animated when used in the context of art. It’s interesting to think how viewers can empathize with animals more than they can with other people. We're bombarded with images of violence against human bodies everyday yet no one seems to think of it as out of the ordinary. But when an animal dies or cruelty towards an animal is displayed, people's anger seems to engage more externally and that protest is widely more accepted. I am intrigued and frustrated with that conflict - with how we engage with our visual culture. I think confronting languages of empathy is important when conceiving of the future in and outside of art. In order for us to change our world, we must engage with it outside of ourselves and our communities of comfort.
Do you have any projects coming up that we should know about?
I have some longterm pieces I have been working on. One is a video series that traces my family's experiences in the Japanese Internment camps during World War II and then expands to explore ideas of violence, love and memory.
Then there are some new sculptures I have been working on that I just started to exhibit. They are chromed resin works that I have carved out that act as both ornament and relic, balancing between a space of decoration and a remnant of violence.