By Rebecka Öhrström Kann 13/10/2023

Izzy Cho is an interdisciplinary printmaker based in Chicago whose work explores superstition in everyday life through her concept of DIY Luck. Building on her Korean-American identity, Cho’s practice looks at the transformation of ritual in diasporic identities and contemporary environments to fit new temporal and geographic contexts. We chatted about her practice of making charms, what she likes to listen to in the studio, the influence of Charlene Liu, and Cho’s recent exhibition Casually Superstitious at Elastic Arts.

Rebecka: How would you describe your work to someone who has never seen it?

Izzy Cho: I guess the elevator pitch that I usually give is that my work is about physical manifestations of good luck in my Korean-American background with a focus on good luck charms and rituals. So it's kind of looking at old school good luck charms and antiquity and doing goofy things to them, like blowing them up really big, or altering the shape a little bit, applying a lot of fluorescent colors and getting really playful with it. And also thinking about alternative materials, so if you use a binding knotting cord for a traditional charm but you make it big, what do you do with that? So maybe we have to use backpack straps to make it a bit more practical and kind of have that translate. Making it really fun, making it really playful and that would be the package of it.

 R: Who/or what are some of the influences that helped you evolve the visual language for your work?

IC: Yeah, so, there's this whole antiquity research, or just looking at Korean antiquity books that my mom had from like the 80s that she gave me. But I also very casually look at fashion. Just the way that it's so effortlessly innovative because it's a part of their job to mix patterns and textures and layer that on top of each other. And then the way you accessorize, too, I almost see that as a flat shape on top of like a field of pattern. So I kind of look at that to see how I can tweak a little bit of form and color or just change the angle of that or change the transparency of that. It's really quite beautiful and really simple. 

And then one big influence that I don't think will ever go away is that I  was a studio assistant in my undergrad for Charlene Liu, the head current professor and printmaking coordinator at the University of Oregon. She very generously let me be a studio assistant, even though I was kind of like, too green, and probably, kind of fucked up more than I, well [laughs] she dealt with a lot of my amateur printmaking skills. But working with her really informs how I think about composition, gravity, form, and even, concept. She was nice enough to let me brainstorm with her, just because the way we deal with like identity in our work was kind of similar. At the time, I was very anal about concept like, “Oh, everything has to move like this, and blah, blah, blah.” But she was very interested in multiple metaphors. Like, this circle, it could be the sun, but it also could be, like, a tangerine, but it also could be the yolk inside of a mooncake or something. Creating this landscape of ideas that still all talk about the same thing in a way. Still talk about culture, identity and abundance and whatnot. So I think that really informs how I work and how I think about shapes and meaning and abstraction a lot. And she uses a lot of cute gradients and I like cute colors.

R: No, I can really see the, what would you say? The lineage, of her ideas into your work. It's super cool to see that.

IC: I do not have a single original idea. Every time I come up with an idea that I think is my own, I'm like, oh no, she already did that [laughs]. She mentioned it to me like a long time ago.

R: You recently did an installation at Comfort Station for their SCAFFOLD project and I I really love that structure, because I think it's so interesting how people have to adjust their ideas to what is a very set space, and so I was curious if you could talk a little bit about creating this work. Is it the first time you make art for a public space?

IC: Yeah so I was just fascinated by how the scaffold was itself kind of a fake house. It was an idea of a house. And previously I’d worked a little bit with Pungsu-Jiri which is like a form of geomancy. Another popular example, is feng shui, but this is a Korean version of it. So I used to work with that in the digital space because I thought it was very funny how it's like, real rules of like trying to make intangible tangible. So trying to make things like good luck and bad luck tangible with organization and rules. So it's like, “oh, if you put a plant here, that's good luck. But if you put a plant here, it's bad luck.” So again, the idea of physical manifestation. And I thought there was a parallel between the scaffold structure (the "idea of home") with the made up constructs of  Pungsu-Jiri, this idea of homemaking.  It made sense, homemaking in this fake house.

I still wanted to still work with charms, but I changed the shape and that was informed by auspicious objects in the home. So, I put in mirror shapes or like the idea of mirrors because placement of mirrors is kind of important. I made vases, I kept the flower shapes because also placement of flowers and flower symbology is a thing as well. The moon as well because thinking about directionality is very important, Pungsu-Jiri is very informed by North, East, South, West. And where I placed the charms too, it was like, North, East, South, West. And also, bats as well. Weirdly, I feel like this doesn't come up a lot, but if you, if you go to Korea, or if you look at a lot of cultural objects bats are actually a pretty prominent motif. I feel like it's not part of the mainstream, maybe because they're not, as cute as a bunny or marketable as a tiger. Incorporating that as well. So, auspicious domestic iconography was involved. It was my first time doing a public art project like that in the elements. Which really kicked my ass [laughs].

R: Especially in Chicago, I bet. 

IC: I was short on time and I was still determined to use cardboard so I tried to do a bunch of things, like caulking as well as spraying it with an acrylic varnish. But it did fall apart. It was supposed to stay up for four weeks, but it stayed up for like two weeks. But I still learned a lot of technical things, which I was really stoked about. Because I feel like I haven't been able to like flex technical learning. And then with the poetry, I personally want to get back into reading. I want to learn how to read again. And so, on my Instagram stories, which I rarely use, I did like a “help me”  asking for references on Asian or Asian American poets that worked a lot with nature and home. I got a lot of responses and then I looked up every single one of them and looked at the poetry to see if it would fit the vibe. I eventually narrowed it down to works by Chen Chen, Li-Young Lee, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Rabindranath Tagore, and John Yau. I wanted something that was general enough but also, like, specific. I didn't want anything that would point too much towards a very specific, Asian or South East Asian culture. Something that could be, like Pan-Asian influenced because I just wanted to talk about home in a broader sense.

I was thinking about how practicing Pungsu-Jiri (and other forms of geomancy) was a way to organize/orient self in space and place, which I felt parallels diaspora folks trying to make space/place for themselves in their respective environments. Although I did feel conflicted about that because I feel like I was drawing a lot from Korean influences, so maybe I should have tried sticking to korean poets. But, I don't know, there is just some really beautiful content. I was trying to find the gage, the balance of something that feels specific, personal and relatable, but also broad enough that it could be applicable in a lot of different ways. And the found text also informed my shapes and placements. I think in my work I'm always interested in micro-macro, like things that are visible from far away and things that will invite people to look a little bit closer. And so I think that text was a way for people to engage a little bit closer and then with the shapes themselves and how the flat the colors were I think, you know, people who were driving in a car, people who were walking across the sidewalk were able to see it and enjoy it in that way as well.

R: Well, I love how you really have to go close to sort of to get that intimate reading. What’s your approach to art making? Where do you find motivation and inspiration?

IC: It's like there's literally nothing else I could do. I feel like there's nothing else that I'm good at ever since I was like young and in school. I wasn't bad at school, but I don't think I was ever really smart. And the first time I actually engaged with critical thinking and understood what that was was through art making. For me, I learned as much about, like, the world, and about, empathy, and consequences, and actually reacting to them through art. So I think the only way I can learn to perceive the world to this day is, through art making. So my motivation is that there's nothing else I could really do. And inspiration, I don't know. I think I'm trying to be just really playful and like, I kind of have this philosophy of if I don't think it's fun, then I probably won't make it.

R: Yeah. That's a good one, honestly. I feel like we force ourselves to do so much, so many things that we don't necessarily enjoy already.

IC: Yeah. That's how I'm trying to make it work. Even with the poetry thing, you know, that's not strictly just for my practice. Personally, I’m just like going to the library for the first time in months. But it's like, I want to read some poetry, I personally want to get some more Asian American content. So it's like, how do I implement that into my work.

R: Your work requires laborious making by hand and takes form across a process of printmaking, sculpture and installation. What kind of atmosphere do you like to work in? Do you listen to anything?

IC: I wish I could work in silence [laughs]. Like, just silence and tuning into my art. But honestly, I think ever since the pandemic mental health took like a pretty bad hit so I feel like I do need some chatter around to get in the zone. I listen to a lot of Mario Kart music, a lot of video game music. It's designed to help you focus and it's designed to, I don't know, make you competitive or like get you into the zone. So that's been super helpful. And I do listen to a few podcasts, no more murder, none of that, that's bad [laughs]. But let's see…Some D&D podcasts to confess. And also a movie podcast. I've been listening to one called Horror Queers. I do like that one a lot because I love films, I love movies. They inform my work I feel, very occasionally. But, I'm very scared [laughs]. So, in this podcast, they focus on a movie, they give production history, a whole summary and they give their own commentary throughout. But their angle is that they either watch queer horror films, or horror films through a queer lens. Like, “oh, this, you know, this is kind of gay” or “this is how I felt as a gay person like watching this.” It's super fun.

R: Is there something in your pieces that is just for you, that you’re pretty sure no one would get?

IC: Hmm I don’t know. I do like that question a lot, though. I feel like maybe every artist should have, should practice this, like, just a little secret for themselves…yeah think it would not be as much like conceptual, but maybe like placement of a thing, like a secret little charm or icon on the piece that maybe I would show to my close friends or something. But my work is always about my mom one way or another. That used to be a bit more explicit in my earlier works, but I think now I don't talk about her quite literally as much on purpose, you know. But I think in that sort of way whenever I talk about ritual or charm or this thing I saw or this thing sensation. It really is through the filtered lens of my mother. So in a way, maybe my little secret weapon is my mom and how she has been the conduit to how I see culture and identity.

R: Could you talk about the idea of “DIY Luck”?

IC: Yeah. I'm always like, oh, it's so funny. I don't know if it's actually that funny, but I thought it's just funny that I'm literally making these charms in a kind of stubborn way, like I'll do it myself. Like, I'm just going to produce my own luck and magic as if that is how it works. Which I thought was silly initially, trying to manifest good luck and almost brute forcing it. But actually, that's how people work, people keep around talismans or do certain ritual performances in order to give you good energy for the day or help you out with a certain problem. But I guess DIY Luck also is also the added cherry on top or the last move you can make, the last embellish on your life. Cause we're all doing our best living. We're going to our job, we're trying to nurture money, we're trying to nurture relationships.

There are so many things we have to do to be like a functioning person, an adult. I feel like luck, and investing in luck and superstition and rituals, that's the final little bit to kind of piece everything together. And I think finding ways to invest in what makes us feel good. I think self care is weirdly a form of DIY luck. Cause like, sure, it's supposed to help our mind and body. But I think it's more about the act and the ritual of it. It's not actually about the mask and whatever nutrients we're soaking up in that face mask. Or, you know, X, Y, and Z. So yeah, DIY luck, and everyday luck, and what can we do to help make us feel like our life is functioning, or that there's a little bit of extra magic in our day. Do you have any DIY luck rituals?

R: Hmm, I think I'll have like certain songs that I'll play, you know, before I do certain things, or you'll eat like a certain meal before you do something, because I feel like my body's gonna feel better and then I'll feel better. Stuff like that, I think. I don't necessarily think of them as rituals, but they totally are because it's a repetitive thing I do. I was wondering if you could also speak a little bit about your recent exhibition, Casually Superstitious, at Elastic Arts that I know is based upon the idea of DIY Luck. What was the process like, how did you navigate the Elastic Arts space, since it's obviously very performance heavy? And what were some central elements or themes that you wanted to cover with the show?

IC: Yeah, so with that one, I think the big thing we had to deal with that space is yeah performance space. So my charms usually are like long long strings, they’ll stretch from the wall to the ground. But we weren't allowed to put them on the ground. So we kind of pivoted and I came up with this idea of creating these stations that were meant to reference personal shrines, like separating the charms by color and having them solely on the wall. And then printing out vinyl to put on their ground cause I still wanted to engage with the floor space. In some way it just felt very kind of odd to have these pieces just as wall pieces. I think because I'm referencing real objects or toggling between the idea of is it just art or is it also functional because I'm making these good luck charms. By engaging the floor space, it felt like they were maybe a bit more object like where they had a little bit more presence in that way. Yeah, so creating those different stations, still talking about superstition and ritual, and maybe also talking about a little bit of domesticity in the sense of how they each had a shelf and they had like an object and kind of needed to have like a charging station. So these charms, the original piece was called Charms at Rest, so it's this idea of potential energy, like these charms are currently hanging up right now, but they have this idea of utilitarian function with the backpack straps that you can open and close so you could technically like wear them and wear one or wear all four at once. On the shelf they each have a different offering so one of them has the alcohol, one of them has the plant and it's this idea that it's of hanging off your keys at the end of the day. They have a place for it and they're just resting until you have to pick it up and use them again. 

With the actual objects it’s the first time I had that many like shelves with objects. I was thinking a little bit of Pungsu-Jiri again, but I was also thinking about shamanism and offerings. There's a very old school, and still currently, there's like a very specific set up for very specific foods. But I recently saw this Korean variety show where they visited this kind of very young, contemporary shaman and he had this whole table set up, and there was like a bunch of junk food and snacks on there, a whole different variety of things. And he very casually, said “oh these are like offerings that my clients give or put up” and it's how these rituals change over time I guess. Also, if you don't have context to like history and antiquity and you're asked to give an offering, then yeah, of course, I would get my favorite Lays or like a random fruit that I like. So I guess that’s something that I always think about.

One thing that's kind of new is I put up old work from like 2019, those prints up on the ceiling. I was a little bit hesitant about that, but Sheridyn encouraged me to put those up. I was hesitant because it's old work but it was basically the blueprint for how I work now because before those prints, which are very colorful and have a lot of activity going on, every time I made work about my culture, it was very funereal. It was like white on white, there were a lot of transparencies, it was very light and flimsy. And Charlene [Charlene Liu] was roasting me a little bit being like, “you know, you're alive and the things you are referencing exist today. There are people still doing stuff with this culture that you're making a graveyard out of it every single time when it's actually like here and now” [laughs]. And so that forced me to consider more about like the celebratory and the contemporary and using color to push it in that direction. Ever since then, even if I don't like color, I'm just like, okay, I have to do it. So in a way having the old work up is kind of full circle, like retrospective and playing back to that as well.

R: It’s great hearing how this old work also sort of found its place with the newer things. To finish off as well, I was interested if you could talk a little bit about what's next for you?

IC: Yeah, so I have a group show, coming up at FLXST in November so I'm excited for that, it’s curated by Laura Kina. So that's coming up show wise and honestly, I haven't had a break at all since graduating so I haven't made any new work. Actually, I'm also going to Korea, like next month for all of October and I haven't been there in nine years. Going there for the first time was super pivotal for me in a lot of different ways but definitely in my work so, I'm kind of excited and nervous to see how that will affect everything whether it's about me or whether it's about my work and whatnot. So artwise, a few shows lined up. Studio wise, I just finished cleaning it. And personally, going to Korea.

Izzy Cho’s work is currently on view at the Martin, Chicago, IL as a part of the show Muted & Mighty, which closes on November 10th.