Ivan Toth Depeña and the Idea of Chance

By Lynn Trenning

In the winter of 2014 Ivan Toth Depeña left Brooklyn for a three-month art residency at McColl Center for Art + Innovation. A year or so later, he came back to Charlotte, this time for good.

Depeña now lives in Charlotte and is in the middle of a 13-month Affiliate Artist residency here at McColl Center. It’s the current end of a well-travelled road with stops in Miami, Brooklyn, Rome, Boston, San Francisco, and then back to Brooklyn. He was lured by Charlotte’s affordability, the friendliness of those he met during his first residency, and because the city offers “a blank canvas, in the sense that you could approach a DIY life here and not necessarily follow in the footsteps of every other artist,” says Depeña. It’s a move that reflects his willingness to take chances, as well as intentionally create scenarios that elicit chance encounters, both central themes in his work. His art is also characterized by the relationship of human beings to the landscape and of what is manmade to what is natural. He creates in a myriad of media and all of his work is influenced by the discipline of architecture.

Ivan Toth Depeña, Redshift, 2015, Mixed Media, 47”x72” (Photo: Michael O'Neill for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)​

After attending New World School of the Arts in Miami, Florida, Depeña was awarded a scholarship while in high school to study architecture at Pratt. He finished the last year and a half of his bachelor’s degree at the University of Miami, and then went on to earn a Master of Architecture from Harvard. “When I was in architecture school I wanted to approach it as sculpture, and was less interested in the pragmatic uses of architecture,” he says.  “I’ve come full circle, back to fine art; however, I think there is architecture in everything I do.”

Chance encounters and the patterns that surface between what is natural and what is manmade emerged early in his work. The photography series “Incidental Antinomes” captures what Depeña calls “the arranged marriage” of trees and light posts in an asphalt parking lot.  “Hereafter” features aerial photographs of human creation on the earth’s surface—an Airstream camper in the woods and a continuum of suburban fencing, for example—shot by Depeña while leaning from a helicopter as he passed over the landscapes.  

Ivan Toth Depeña, Hereafter, 2005, Photograph

In his studio at McColl Center, Depeña is merging art made by machine and man. Quite some time ago, he began playing with glitch art (sometimes referred to as datamoshing or databending). It’s an aesthetic where code is manipulated to achieve random, abstracted images. From this he created abstract photos, which he cut and combined with painting and other media into large-scale collages mounted on wood. This process has since been embellished with silkscreen, laser etchings, computer numerical control (CNC), and hand and machine drawing.  The final composition is the result of deconstructing familiar objects and reassembling them to surprising affect. “The work continues an exploration that marries chance and intention in various ways,” Depeña reveals. “[It] unveils a new trajectory in my overall body of work.”

Ivan Toth Depeña, Blueshift (Beta), 2015, Mixed Media, 47”x72” (Photo: Michael O'Neill for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)​

He is also working on several permanent, public art installations that continue his studio explorations on a larger scale. Using natural phenomenon, movement and various other data, he produces unexpected and constantly changing formal results and compositions. “Once public art was in my frame of vision, I realized it is the perfect situation for me, because it combines most of the areas that I have both interest and expertise,” he says.  

He has started work on his first public art/building at a Charlotte Area Transit (CATS) Park-and-Ride Station just north of Charlotte in the town of Cornelius. It will incorporate elements of the topography of Lake Norman, which makes up the town’s western border. He has created interactive and LED-based installations in Miami. Built with custom software, LED nodes and infrared cameras, the installations are activated by the motion of humans and by the memory of their motion when they are gone. He has also worked on large-scale, sculptural projects using light and colored glass at light rail stations in Denver, Colorado. In Aventura, Florida, his sculpture “Arc” is being installed in front of a library destroyed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. “Arc” incorporates the site-specific wind data from the storm—speed, direction, and duration—to generate the form of the sculpture. The sculpture also uses real-time wind data to light the installation at night using a sensor on the roof of the rebuilt library.

While his work is abstract, Depeña’s drawing skills are solid, and the specifics of each piece are intricately documented in traditional sketchbooks. “I’d like to think you can approach all of my work from two perspectives.  It can be aesthetically gratifying or intellectually gratifying. It can be playful and simultaneously thoughtful,” he says. “The main element that ties things together is my obsession with the idea of chance.”