Ahhh, L.A., a magical place where a Tokyo-born, Westside-raised trilingual artist starts off an interview by offering some refreshing and wholly legit insight on the perpetual conundrum of Chicano art. And everything about that is a-okay.
“In Mexico,” says Ichiro Irie, 36, “they have a strong impression of what you would call Chicano art. You know, paintings of Cuauhtémocand Quetzacoalt, this kind of nationalism by second- and third-generation Mexicans. To a Mexican living in Mexico, an analogy would be someone painting heroic pictures of George Washington.”
But, says Irie, who lived in Mexico City for five years, “you got to see everything in its own context.” In other words, for some Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles, the need to declare one’s Mexicanness can be read as an aesthetic imperative: “Art functions in an abstract or literal way to establish some kind of identity.”
And to bring it full circle, back to himself, the subject of this interview, he adds: “So although I don’t paint pictures of samurais or Mount Fuji, I try to show my identity through my work, basically.”
Pleasant in demeanor and prone to jolly laughter, Irie has just returned to Los Angeles. He says he’s seeking to reconnect with the cultural scene he left behind when he took off to pursue artmaking in Mexico right when the Mexican Zeitgeist was at its hottest, when the centuries flipped. He spent his one-year Fulbright scholarship studying painting, then just stayed on, engorging himself on the rich social life of the Mexican capital and finding his love, Aska Iida, an artist also from Japan who at the time was studying at Mexico’s national art school.
Actually, Irie never fully abandoned L.A. Between 2001 and 2006, he frequently traveled back and forth between the two cities. Four of those times, he did it by car. While in Mexico, he founded a bilingual arts magazine called Rim, a name that references both the Pacific Rim of his upbringing and the edgy cities that orbit the major art power centers such as New York and London. He also briefly operated a gallery, Rimjaus, out of his apartment in the Roma district. And he formed Cacahuates Japoneses, an arts group named after a beloved Mexican snack famous for its packaging decorated with Asian stereotypes.
Growing up in L.A., Irie spoke Japanese at home and learned Spanish by osmosis, a function of living among Latinos in Santa Monica and exploring a lifelong affinity for Latin American culture. It’s an outlook Irie hopes to bring to his work at Steve Turner Gallery, where he was recently hired to organize shows, and at a residency at the 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica.
“My identity is L.A.,” he says. “I don’t feel American necessarily, and don’t I feel Japanese necessarily, but I do feel Angeleno… This is all I know, and everything else is learned.”