by Lily Koto Olive
New York based artist Tat Ito explores themes of human interconnectedness by juxtaposing elements and iconography that stem from his native Japanese culture set against a Western viewpoint. Sprawling environments echo Baroque and Rococo landscapes, while manga-like characters populate the lively surfaces. The influence of Japanese printmaking is evident in the way Ito handles space and compositional decisions, often utilizing gold leaf cloud and wave shapes. These metallic liquid shapes float on top of his environments, but never blending into the lush surfaces beneath.
Like Bosch and Bruegel, Ito invents his own worlds teeming with the characters he creates. His paintings reflect the familiar urban experience of being surrounded while also feeling completely alone.
Ito’s paintings always offer more to discover. Each individual character is doing its own thing. Fornication, defecation and suicide can all be spotted within the same picture. Viewers are rewarded on their visual journey by these new discoveries, images resonating during what will surely be the long read.
Ito describes his characters as “somewhat related in the picture but they’re very individual by themselves. Usually there are features of specific people in there, like one guy is bald like Cy Twombly is bald, or one looks like a little boy. But not really specifically anyone. There are some characters that come back in the paintings.”
The reference to Cy Twombly was a character Ito created in a piece last year, along with a character representing aspects of Lucien Freud; Ito’s way to pay homage to the two great painters who both sadly passed away last year.
Ito’s work has shifted in the recent past. World events [specifically the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011] have made him question his content decisions.
“Wow, what am I focusing on? Who cares about this, there are much bigger things. That [the earthquake] has completely changed things for me in my work towards more about what’s going on around the world rather then just in the art market.”
Ito discusses news feeds and how quickly the stories switch. News reporting on the Japan earthquake and tsunami wreckage stopped after a week of coverage, moving on to other new stories. Ito’s anger and frustration at a lack of global news access affected him intensely; being cut off prompted him to focus on the events and take pause in his work to examine them.
The Japanese earthquake found its way into his recent works in his usage of the gold leafed wave and water shapes. These recurring symbols remind us of the flooding and tragedy of that event, but are also combined with flowers and a plethora of characters; his world is still enjoying and living life, despite the tragic events. These scapes Ito’s characters exist in are all executed in a very set way. He creates the setting, building an environment first, just like in life, and then giving space for his characters to move and exist.
“Everything is very planned from the beginning, I draw up everything, then trace it onto my surface, so it [the environment] doesn’t change that much. The image is already set mostly. When I make a drawing I make a background first, then put tracing paper on top then start working on figures and deciding where I want to place them.”
His formal decisions for the placement of his gold leaf shapes are enhanced by his use of a vibrant palette. Similarly to 18 and 19th century Japanese prints, his gold motifs are positioned against gradients and create totally different spaces within the image.
Ito continues the tradition of using strong compositional elements seen in traditional Japanese printmaking. Unconventional circular compositions frame his architectural spaces, representing the interconnectedness of people. According to the artist, this represents his view of humanity and how we all have our own view. The wheel setting offers no top or bottom.
“In my life I am the main character, but in your life you are the main character. It’s just drawn like that. Everyone has their own view, this kind of format presents that.”
The architectural spaces in Ito’s landscapes are often depicted from a complex vantage point, interior and exterior views are exposed next to glistening, jewel-like scapes.
“A lot of the architecture and colors comes from my love of the Islamic and Indian miniature paintings. The way they use the highly saturated color next to each other, it’s so vibrant. I try to use it more opaquely.”
Sound, video and digital photography are now all viable options for an artist to extend his or her creation. These other mediums challenge the contemporary artist to always consider their art-making process. Ito has recently begun expanding his studio practice:
“These days I’m thinking how weak painting is as a medium so I’m doing some video animations too. Maybe at this years solo show I’ll have the paintings and video animations be exactly the same. Bring the characters to life.”
While I’m confident that seeing Ito’s characters come to life will be magical, I’m equally excited to see what he creates next within his painting realm. As a fellow painter and believer in the archaic notion that painting is indeed NOT dead, I can say seeing Ito’s works in person really does create an experience that couldn’t be replicated in another medium.
Tat Ito is represented by Joshua Liner Gallery in New York.
Quotes were taken from an interview between Jonathan Beer, Tat Ito and Lily Koto Olive at Tat Ito’s studio in Queens, NY in January 2012.