When Zon Ito was growing up in Osaka in the 1970s, vacant lots were his playgrounds. He used to snatch praying mantises and grasshoppers with tweezers or scoop little fish from neighborhood ponds. So much for his early artistic education, later formalized by a degree from the University of Fine Arts in Kyoto, where he currently lives and works. Ito’s fascination for things natural is at the core of his artistic vocabulary, described in a variety of lowbrow media, including drawing, embroidery, book-making, and animation.
A series of five handmade books, Scrap Works of Scum (1999) is exemplary of Ito’s playful and surreal take on the relationships between man and nature. When the covers of each volume are aligned side-by-side, they reveal a sunlit mountain landscape, deserted but for a few eerie human and animal beings. In each book—titled respectively View of the River; Luminous Book; Animal Picture Book; Super Rainbow; and Scrap Works of Scum—aerial shots of a fisherman at the bend of a river, fluorescent insects, psychedelic landscapes, and hallucinatory vistas form a disjointed collection of playlets that grapple as much with the frailty of life as with the tenuous nature of memory and the subversive power of the unconscious.
Vacant Lot, a series of five embroideries on fabric commissioned by the Walker Art Center for its 2003 exhibition How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age, similarly tackles the oneiric and the uncanny to bring about visions of the world seen from under rather than above, scrutinizing the forgotten, the leftover, and the overlooked. Suspended on a string in the traditional manner of displaying kimonos, the five panels are cut in the shape of actual vacant lots. While one side of each panel is overcrowded with embroidered details depicting the underground life of insects in vivid colors, the other side is spare, bearing only the half-formed letters of the title on a dense dark blue background framed by images of a dog and wild grass.
For this accomplished guitarist who once performed in the now-defunct rock and roll band Anti-Gravity Johnny while swinging in the air as the other musicians played upside down, the key word may very well be “underground.” The seemingly anomalous world Ito depicts is a globalized vision born as much out of Osaka’s local life and Japanese anime as of American psychedelic and hippie youth culture and the artist’s own brand of quiet subversiveness.