Symbol, Mystery, Icon: in conversation with Greg Ito

Greg Ito is known for his meticulously crafted environments in which light, paintings, sculptures, and architectural features work in tandem to produce a unified, surreal experience. Drawing on a collection of well-known symbols from fairy tales and historical paintings, Ito conjures the biggest themes in human life like love, marriage, longing, and catastrophe. Recurrent imagery includes the intertwined hands of lovers, a snake with two heads, a white rabbit, burning candles, and an hourglass. Yet unlike the fairy tales we all know, Ito’s do not follow a predictable narrative arc, instead blurring the lines between ominous and pleasant situations. It’s impossible to tell whether these tales have a happy or tragic ending, and we are left with the faint realization that we may have been tricked; seduced by the beautiful colors and shapes of the installation. I spoke with Ito to find out why he’s drawn to fairy tales and what these symbols mean to him.

Anna Kovler: Walking into your show at Arsenal I was struck by these giant candles with neon flames. The electric candle is a funny object as it combines a very ancient light source with a modern one.

Greg Ito: I used to include a real candle that’s burning in my shows, to show the passage of time. I love the ability to watch the candle burn and get shorter. Here at Arsenal, I wanted to create this surreal fantasy dream world where time folded in on itself; I thought let’s just freeze these candles in time, and neon was the best option. As these “Alice in Wonderland” oversized candles, they become people in the room.

AK: Where are you pulling all of these symbols from?

GI: I am interested in things we all experience like birth, sickness, age and death, or simply the sun setting. I use symbols of mortality, and they become like avatars for people or relationships. If you look closely at the candles, you’ll see two faces make a single candlestick. All these things are reflections of what I’m thinking of in my daily life, like health or my parents’ health. I’m finding these cycles of life to be so much more potent now than when I was in my twenties. I still have fun, but the older I get the more I notice the weight of iconic life events, and I’m expressing it through this lexicon of images. I like to work with familiar symbols that people can relate to.

AK: Most of these images are happy, but I also get this sense of doom, with the hourglass and menacing spider.

GI: The lurking spider can be many things, it can refer to fear in general. Everyone has a fear of something, be it loss or failure, and this is depicted in the paintings. There is space there for you to project your own life onto it. In a way it’s like looking in a mirror, because you can reflect on things you’ve gone though just by seeing these spiders or hand symbols in a diagrammatic painting. I call them vignette paintings, because of the separated vignettes that create hotspots where I want associations to emerge.

AK: One of the recurring motifs in this show is a cloud of smoke rising from various places and objects, what does the rising smoke mean?

GI: The smoke has been a symbol in a lot of my paintings, and it has a dual objectivity where it can be that you’re deserted and you need somebody, or something more terrible, like a boat crash. It can be either a signal of hope, or disaster. I also want to communicate a sense of longing for a companion, that special somebody you’ve been searching for.

AK: Some of your paintings have this scene where the action is framed with a keyhole, why did you choose this shape?

GI: For me this shape is heavily rooted in the mood of longing. It’s like you’re looking into a world you want to experience, but you don’t always have the key to open that up. You’re peeking through into this world that you see yourself in so clearly in the future, but you’re not there yet. I think that everybody has an idealized idea of what paradise would be, a place they want to get to or experience, and it’s different things for different people, like a family with a house or a really nice job or just freedom. But not everyone’s dreams are realized, either now or ever.

AK: Your paintings remind me of Tarot cards or Emoji icons. Would you say that’s accurate?

GI: Yeah I would. I’ve always been a fan of Tarot card imagery and freemason imagery, and I like how cult images are composed, like old astrology drawings. I’ve also been told my work reminds people of Japanese Hanafuda cards. My paintings are a product of everything I’ve seen, they’re injected with lots of symbolism just like Tarot or other cards.

AK: Are these about love?

GI: They’re definitely about love, and about the fleeting nature of love and time running out. I see them as contemporary “Vanitas” paintings that are meant to remind the viewer that they too will die one day, and all things on earth are temporary.

Greg Ito’s exhibition Enchantment is on view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto from January 26 until March 30, 2019. Upcoming exhibitions will take place at The Drake Hotel in Toronto at the end of May, Penske Projects in Los Angeles in June, and No Place Gallery in Colombus in June, 2019.

Greg Ito. Installation view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto, 2019.

Greg Ito. Installation view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto, 2019.

Greg Ito. Installation view at Arsenal Contemporary Toronto, 2019.

Greg Ito in his LA studio, 2019. Photo courtesy of artist.  Photo by Roman Koval.