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Greg Ito Talks with Interview Magazine

Greg Ito, the Los Angeles-based painter who’s meticulously crafted mattress-sized frames he renders using Home Depot paint. His show, Sink or Swim, features pastel paintings that at first look like soft, aquatic menageries, but whose details suggest heavier preoccupations: a monopoly-sized house bobbing on surf, empty beer bottles scattered on an ocean floor, a fish stuffed with coins, sinking. Check out Ito's latest Q&A with Interview Magazine:

DERRICK ADAMS, of Interview Magazine: Hey, Greg. What’s going on?

GREG ITO: I’m good, thank you. How are you?

ADAMS: I had the pleasure of seeing one of your works in person at the gallery a couple of months ago when they installed a group exhibition. Prior to seeing the work in person, I was impressed with the visibility of it from a digital aspect, seeing the color and the composition. That was one of the things that really stood out. Your use of color and your very distinct color palette seemed really interesting...I’d love to hear a little bit more about it.

ITO: For me, I feel like when I’m working on my paintings, it’s almost as if I’m cleaning a dirty mirror, like I’m trying to look at myself and understand something in my life. I’m a father now. My daughter’s three years old. The past three years have been such a roller coaster, and I feel like my work helped me navigate through a lot of the more difficult times. As I’m painting and composing my images, it’s like I get a little bit closer to seeing a piece of myself that I just didn’t really understand. My wife is Black, so we’re a mixed-race household. She’s learning things about me and my culture, and I’m learning about hers every day. When I first started my artistic journey, a lot of it had to do with my Japanese-American heritage and honoring the family lore that came out of the internment camps and how these polished family stories really carry my parents and myself through our hardships. It’s similar to how Black history is also so dark, but people were still building families during those times and persevering. The current show is called Sink or Swim and that’s how I’ve been feeling for the last year. When I first started painting and working with Anat [Ebgi, the gallery] in February 2020, I did Frieze L.A. and it did really well. But in the last year, I feel like I’ve been facing so many personal challenges. I felt such a weight on my shoulders. When my baby was first born, I’m like, “Yo, I’m going to get everything organized, work on my art, build our family structure, our safe haven.” Three years down the road, I don’t know if I’m any closer to my goal. I feel like I’ve been treading water. I look back at my family’s past for inspiration, but lately I can’t really turn to that as much as I did before. I have to hyper focus on what’s happening now. And lately, I find that everybody’s in the same boat.

ADAMS: The shark piece, especially. What first drew me into your work is the way that you are able to combine these very opposing colors together to make a more synthesized experience through color and very flat tones. If you’re lucky as an artist, the idea of fear and failure should never stop. You should always feel that you’re not fully realized as a person, as an artist. What’s really exciting about making art is not knowing what’s at the end of the tunnel, looking at fear or failure as a necessary evil. And for me, I never think about my work in a museum context or a gallery context...

ITO: It lives in different kinds of spaces. It’s not just a museum gallery, but it’s also a public space. And for me, with my work, I want it to be extremely accessible. It’s really amazing to me when I have an elderly person access my work, and then I see my daughter look at stuff and she’s like, “That’s a clock.” They both can visually access the work. That’s why I made these paintings, and then I made this central sculpture, which is the shark. I designed the environment where all these things will live together, which then pushes this presentation into more of an experience. I want it to be transformational, I want people to walk off the street and walk into this flooded room. During the opening, when you’re in a room full of people and we’re all in the flood together, you look to the person beside you and they are helping you stay afloat. They’re helping encourage you. I wanted to face my fears, and that’s why I designed this room so that I can look at the shark, this shiny, glossy, sexy objects.

ADAMS: There’s an underlying competitive pressure that you have to pretend doesn’t exist. Everything is about being chill, but when you think about the world in general, and especially the United States, in the art scene, there’s a competitiveness that is transferable to any city regardless of the fast pace of New York. I think that artists in L.A. want the same thing that artists in New York want. They want to be able to live off their work and to be able to have a studio and have a life and exist in a way that will be beneficial for them to do their survival.

ITO: I’m learning these lessons right now. My family, my practice, these things complete me. Everything else that I put so much time into, they don’t complete me. They’re part of the mirage. Right now, I’m ready to let go of it, so I can live my fulfilling dad life and focus on my studio.

ADAMS: You have other parts. Now, you’re just really working with what you have at this point.

ITO: I’m learning. I feel like I’m really evolving as a person. Even though these paintings seem a little heavily soaked in fear with this flood imagery, there are bursts of hope when you want to look for them. On top of the bookcase, you’ll see the soil and the plants gathered on top of that bookcase. At the bottom of the painting, it’s the depths of fear, and as you push upward into the paintings, it’s what uplifts you. It’s the forcing through a difficult time of the waterline, that transition of letting go of an addiction to breed a better life. With my parents, I was the artist. They were pharmacists. I was rebellious. I just wanted to do my own thing. But now, it’s funny, because when I talk about my daughter, Karen’s like, “Oh, maybe she’ll become a singer.” In the back of my head, I’m like, “Well, what else is she going to do so she can be secure?” It’s a full circle. Those lessons are pulling me through, out of this flood. But if I turn around and I face it, I feel like I’m more in control. That’s what I’m doing with the show. I do have a little nervousness inside of me about showing in New York for the first time.


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