Greenpoint Gazette

Alex Itin: The One-Man Art Festival

BY Michael Cesarczyk

Alex Itin will never die of boredom. The 22-year veteran of the New York art scene always finds something to film, paint, write, and digitize, often combining all four whenever possible. In recent years, the freakishly prolific Itin has moved to Williamsburg and expanded his projects to include music and theater. He is currently working as artist-in-residence at both 17 Frost Art and Performance Space and the Institute for the Future of the Book, a digital think-tank based in Williamsburg. On April 10, Itin and local band Sineparade will begin a six consecutive weekend run of Zipperhead, a live multimedia event about life in post 9/11 New York, at the newly renovated 17 Frost Space. The show follows a much-lauded one-night preview at the now defunct Monkeytown in September 2009 and is highly anticipated.

Born in New York and raised in Connecticut, Itin is the son of Swiss abstract painter/graphic designer Marcel Itin and Long Island actress/fiber artist Helen Stewart. His childhood was precocious and artistic, almost surrealistically so. Itin’s first aesthetic experience occurred at age 3 during a family picnic in a French cemetery. His mind swimming with van Gogh paintings he had seen while touring the south of France, he wandered off and came across a bronze statue of a man with a goatee, which, much to his astonishment winked at him. To this day, Itin likes to think it was the Dutch master himself (or at least a ghost).

Itin’s first and current love is filmmaking. He made his first film in the fifth grade and by high school had won several national festival awards. Although he had thought about attending film school at NYU, making films eventually became too cost-prohibitive. He was also terrified of trying start a career too early in the city. “New York is somewhere you go to when you know what you want,” Itin says today. “There’s no room to fail. It’s not a place to learn something.” Instead, he went to study semiotics at Brown and focused on writing for the next five years. The better part of that time was spent on “Heroes,” a novel about two American brothers in Paris. Though the novel was never published, the main characters, Phil and Pat, and many of Itin’s ideas, were used in his later work, especially “Arc Along the Watchtower,” his first motion picture e-book.

By the end of college, Itin had become a painter. He hardly noticed that he had made a switch from writing to a more visual medium. To him, words had always been better understood as pictures. Painting was just writing on a canvas. More importantly, he discovered that he had a natural facility for it. He loved paint and after half a decade of observing people for writing material, it was a relief to be more physically engaged with his work. In the 1990s, Itin haunted every New York art show he could find and soon found his work hanging next to those of his idols (De Kooning and Kline) at the prestigious Allan Stone Gallery. His wearable art (painted hats and accessories) was featured in magazines such as Elle and Vogue.

In the late 90s, Itin’s new artistic career was interrupted by his father’s battle with cancer and subsequent death. The trauma of watching his father die not only changed Itin’s approach to painting and drawing; it obliterated it. On his blog, IT IN place, he writes: “[It] seemed to strip me of my ability to make a good picture. I forgot it all.” To “re-educate” himself, Itin returned to a warm-up exercise he had done in college – ripping out books and drawing in the pages. And, as so often in his life, Itin took his lemons and made a lemonade factory. Only selecting books that he had read and loved, he drew thousands of pictures, most of which he considered to be terrible. In the process, however, he discovered a new visual language and experimented a lot with photographic collage. This led to drawing in alternative spaces, usually with bands and DJs playing. During such a performance at DUMBO Open Studios, Itin caught the eye of Bob Stein, computer pioneer and co-founder of the Criterion Collection, a collection of definitive films on digital media. Stein introduced Itin to the possibilities of digital publishing, setting him on his current path of digital art.

The digital artworks of Alex Itin are his most innovative and arguably his most vibrant, complex and controversial. After being mentored by Stein at Night Kitchen at the Institute for the Future of the Book, Itin released an extraordinary series of e-books with texts far ahead of their time. In the intensely ambitious “MoRococo,” published right before 9/11, he created a calligraphic song cycle dealing with terrorism in Israel on an Arabic text. The highly colorful e-book, which can be navigated in different directions, is played against a hypnotic loop composed by singer-songwriter Javier Hernandez-Miyares. To Itin, using all possible media at the same time was natural. He had even written his novel on one of the first word processors. Itin’s most well known works at the moment, however, are his videos, many of which are on Vimeo and YouTube. The most popular one is “Orson Whales,” a stream-of-consciousness montage of surreal animation drawn on the pages of Moby-Dick and played against the Led Zeppelin drum solo “Moby-Dick,” while Orson Wells recites the Melville narrative and sometimes gets drunk on “California” champagne. Even though Itin likes the accessibility of his videos (having shown some of them at Festival Pocket Films in Paris last summer), he is ambivalent about their success. “I just wanted a bigger audience to network so the e-books could be bought,” he admits. “If a tree falls in the forest, who gives a damn?”

After nearly half a century of devoting all his energies to his work, Alex Itin maintains a healthy ambivalent attitude about the artistic process. When asked at a recent show whether he actually likes to paint, he shrugged. “It’s like going to the bathroom,” he explained. “Do you like going to the bathroom or do you just feel better after you do? You just need to get it out. If you could avoid it somehow, you would. It’s a wonderful illusion for just a second that you feel whole, like sex. What do you say to a cotton picker who’s singing? ‘You look like you’re having fun’? Well…sometimes it’s fun.”

For more about Alex Itin, visit his blog, IT IN place.


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