Mario Ayala & Greg Ito
March 23 - April 28, 2018
“See that helicopter up there? / Like God’s eye looking down on his children / ...Where I live” (1979)
“I live for it / Can’t let go of it / To live is to drive” (1985)
-Wanda Coleman, “Where I Live” & “I Live For My Car”
These stanzas of Wanda Coleman’s reach across time to help locate the work of Los Angeles-based artists Mario Ayala and Greg Ito. Following in the tradition of the city’s unofficial poet laureate, Ayala and Ito explore the ecology of symbols distinct to their birthplace, elevating and reconfiguring the ubiquitous visual language and objects central to the experience and mythology of Los Angeles.
In his paintings, Ito juxtaposes macro and micro physical and emotional environments. The immensity of the city’s urban sprawl is witnessed in sweeping vistas; LAPD’s ‘ghetto bird’ helicopters, seemingly ever-present above Ito’s studio in South Los Angeles and Ayala’s in Solano Canyon, cast their spotlights down on citizens from the angle of yaw. A narrative develops through cellular interventions within these landscapes. Evoking the cinematic language of manga, graphic novels, or storyboards, Ito retraces his family’s personal history of internment and dislocation in Los Angeles. This story is less one of despair than of sensual, if mysterious, progress. Several vignettes depict hands, Bresson-esque in their ability to invite us into the subjectivities of otherwise unseen characters. We see them, larger than life, in contorted, loving, or mournful gestures. In one, two sets meet in a warm embrace, as if through a great physical or temporal divide. Other cells in this narrative present even further fragmented or non sequitur storytelling. In a reverent, if sly homage to Ed Ruscha (the paintings on the whole recall Ruscha’s colleague Ken Price’s watercolors of Los Angeles’ geographic and mythic landscape), the Griffith Observatory is seen in flames, while in another cell, a building fire is witnessed through the frame and lens of an iPhone.
The symbols and imagery in Ito’s paintings reappear in the space as surreal sculptural objects. Drawing from the city’s tradition of stagecraft, the sculptures serve almost as props in a yet-to-be named performance. For instance, a peacock, common to Los Angeles’ Chinatown is adorned with the evocative neon light of nearby Sunset Boulevard. Ito’s painting, sculpture, and installation together form a single aesthetic environment, one that holistically investigates Los Angeles’ rich, if sordid, history, his own role within that history, and the tenuous future before him.
If Ito reimagines the city from above, Ayala surveys it from street level, using the automobile – Los Angeles’ most common (and iconic) symbol – as a site to explore individual and municipal identity. In this series of paintings, Ayala alludes to slippages and intersections between the body and vehicle. Rendered in airbrush, Ayala employs vernacular modes of expression central to car customization to consider the anthropomorphic qualities of automobiles, as well as the way they in turn transform our notion of self. The image of a person of color replaces the knockoff cap of a Dayton rim common to the Baroque automobiles found in Southern California’s lowrider culture. Standing behind police tape, the figure looks upon the audience with an expression of docile resignation, pondering the coincidences and injustices of its circumstance. In another painting, an individual, perhaps the artist, is seen through a neuroimaged medical scan, its brain and other organs replaced with the engine and transmission of an automobile.
In the fashion of storefront murals, characters frequently transmitted through the city’s FM dials are memorialized by Ayala with grace and wit, while the iconography of the city’s many mud flaps and bumper stickers come to life in the gallery space as sculptures. Ayala perceives the environment through the tools of the airbrush and automobile to create his own distinct world of signs that gives voice and agency to otherwise overlooked objects and communities. Presenting the mundane as mythic, Ayala unveils a certain quality of politicized (and mechanized) selfhood in this multicultural city, where, in the words of Wanda Coleman, “You come to know people best by how they maneuver on the freeway / Make lane changes / Or handle off-ramps.”
Ayala and Ito’s work converges in their treatment of environment. The gallery as a whole is transformed into a space of expanded, cinematic synesthesia. Field recordings of traffic and helicopters place the audience in the distinct environmental context of LA’s sprawling streetscapes. Elements of installation allude to legacy and the passage of time, with the audience moving through the course of a day as they travel from the brightly lit environs of the gallery’s foyer to a darkened room illuminated with only splashes of neon light, imbuing the gallery with a sense of geologic time, inevitable erosion, and exposure to the elements.
This investigation of legacy and place is brought from the aesthetic to the real in Ayala and Ito’s reinstallation of local bar and municipal institution Hop Louie in the gallery. An establishment and mainstay of the city’s artistic class for decades – Hop Louie served as a venue for early Reagan-era LA punk bands and was the site of contemporary post-opening parties - Hop Louie abruptly closed its doors in 2017 as the result of the economic and social realities of present-day Los Angeles. This new iteration of Hop Louie, with its celebrated bartenders in attendance, operates as a program space throughout the run of the exhibition, culminating with the release of a catalogue of works and performances at the show’s conclusion.
- Ted Gerike
Images by Grant Gutierrez