text by Adam Lehrer
South Korean New York-based visual artist and painter Hyon Gyon’s Chinatown studio is hard to miss. Walking down Canal Street past the skateboarders that grind the rails along the bike path at the bottom of the Manhattan side of the Manhattan bridge, the markets that smell ripe of fish and assorted edible sea creatures, and the dizzyingly busy intersection of a diverse population, you finally take a right on Eldridge Street. Quite visibly from the opposite end of the block your eye catches an out-of-place looking two floor building with a massive sign that reads “Hyon Gyon.” The building looks more like a hut or a place of worship than an emerging visual artist’s studio. Considering Gyon’s aesthetic and work, that notion could feel rather deliberate on part of the artist. But talking to Gyon for any length of time quickly dispels that notion. Her studio is just an outgrowth of her practice, and her practice lacks any grand conceptual conceit. She channels energy into her art. What you see is simply what has come out of her.
Inside that studio is a visual world perhaps even more rarified and indicative of Gyon’s work than the locale’s exterior. The first floor is half work space and half gallery displaying several of Gyon’s large-scale and quite spectacular paintings that combine the markings of abstract expressionism and traditional Korean shamanistic imagery alongside Gyon’s scattered work materials. The room is accented by vibrant Korean carpets that cover almost the entirety of the floor. Upstairs, Gyon maintains a sizable collection of art and design books and has been stockpiling an assortments of garments that Gyon has taken to painting, deconstructing, and refashioning. At the center of the artifacts and tasteful junk is Gyon herself: ethereally beautiful, petite, and adorned in a sparkly pink top over a Rolling Stones t-shirt, she abstractly resembles the ideas that flow out of her in her work.
Gyon was attending university when she decided to be an artist professionally. Initially interested in fashion and having even worked at a studio that designed traditional Korean garments, Gyon’s decision to work in the fine arts was catapulted by the death of her grandmother. When Gyon’s grandmother passed, her family took part in a gut (pronounced: “goot”) ritual for her; in these ceremonies, a Korean shaman leads a series of sacrifices, physical gestures and prayers to the gods that theoretically enable a peaceful transition for the human spirit to leave the physical plane and enter into the spiritual plane. But in a more tangibly relatable manner, the gut ritual serves the purpose of allowing the deceased’s loved ones to move on. To purge negativity. To experience catharsis. That ritualized catharsis had a deep impact on Gyon, and she knew then that she had found her subject manner. “It’s hard to describe what happened to me,” says Gyon referring to her catharsis felt during the gut ritual. “Something in me had changed. I knew that I wanted people to experience emotion through my work.”
Gyon focuses on bold paintings and abstract sculptures with textile elements that use the faces and bodies of monstrous characters, or “incarnations” as she calls them, that are emblematic of specific emotions from the wide scale of human feeling. After working and developing her practice in Japan for 13 years, Gyon moved to New York in 2013 on a residency supported by her new dealers at Shin Gallery. The residency first resulted in a pop-up show entitled Hyon Gyon and The Factory that referenced Warhol and saw Gyon producing at truly Warholian (or should we say Herculean?) rates. This year, Shin included Gyon’s work alongside titans like Balthus and Salvador Dali in a group show entitled I Wanna Be Me that used its Sex Pistols aping title to celebrate utterly personal expression in a world of appropriation. But the greatest testament to Gyon’s talents at this juncture was her first eponymous Shin Gallery solo show that ran over the summer. The centerpiece of the show was the sculptural Headpiece that saw Gyon applying oil paints to pillows. Every pillow was its own face unlike any of the other faces and, according to Gyon, each represented a human emotion. The stacking of the pillows on top of one another and fashioning them to collide into one another was emblematic of any single human being’s psychology: chaotic and disorganized but still working together to create a definable whole. While so much of the conceptual art world explores the anxiety and paranoia that technology has unleashed upon the world populace, Gyon looks toward a concept that is, if not divine, than spiritual. Her work is awake and tapped into something that lives above the cacophony of daily existence. I had to talk to her.
LEHRER: What were you going through emotionally while in university that led you to transition into creating art works?
Gyon: During my first master course, I was working through my own personal experiences with my grandmother having just passed and that prompted me to focus on my work. I was enjoying making art, but really didn’t know what I wanted to make and I wasn’t sure what my subject matter would be. I was looking for something. We held a a “gut” ritual for her and that had a big impact on me.
LEHRER: Obviously having your grandmother pass away is an emotional event, but what was it about the ceremony specifically that you connected with making artwork?
Gyon: I was not very close with my grandmother. I was not a good grandchild. I did very bad things to her. I regretted this. After she passed away, I couldn’t do anything for her. It made me so sad and I wanted to meet her again.
LEHRER: So you felt making art somehow would connect you to your grandmother in the way that you couldn’t while she was alive?
Gyon: Yes. During the Guy Ceremony, I felt I could meet my grandmother, like I could talk to my grandmother. I had such negative emotions in my mind and after the ceremony, they were gone. Not completely gone, but my emotions changed.
LEHRER: Your artwork is obviously very emotional. I was curious, I read that as a child, you liked burning textiles and that this became a part of your process later on. For you, was that destructive act also a creative act?
LEHRER: Could you explain that a little bit?
Gyon: As a kid, I didn’t want to go out. I didn’t want to play with my friends. I just wanted to be alone. My mom had a lot of fabrics and I wanted to do something with them. Draw, paint, write. But, I used a lighter. It didn’t work. It all burned
LEHRER: I’ve read articles about the fashion designer Margiela when he was still around.
Gyon: I love him
LEHRER: When people asked why he sent ripped clothing down the runway, he said for him ripping clothes is just another creative act. It’s like you’re destroying something to create something else.
GYON: I use that process, always. When I make a painting, I’ll destroy it, remake it, destroy it. It’s much better in the end.
LEHRER: Your work has been broken down into these five different ideas: Incarnations, hair which I guess is a metaphor for life and how life can continue after death, the stigma of the shaman lifestyle of being ostracized or put away from your community, but called upon for important funerals and things like that, and catharsis. That sounds very specific. What sort of lead you to focus on these five ideas?
Gyon: I don’t think it’s so specific. It’s about life and death. Happy or unhappy.
LEHRER: So many contemporary artists now are dealing with the paranoia surrounding the digital age and surveillance technology. But your work is still dealing with the big themes of life, death, and spirituality. Obviously you have have a laptop and Wi-Fi, but do you feel yourself consciously disconnecting from technology to get in touch with your work?
Gyon: I’m not a huge technology person.
LEHRER: That helps
Gyon: I have to use laptop, i have to use iPhone. Instagram brought you and I together, it has a power. It’s so amazing. I use it, but I am very human.
LEHRER: Are you religious or just spiritual?
Gyon: I don’t have any religion. Shamans aren’t about religion, they are spiritual.
LEHRER: Right, and they can be like medicine men too? Healers?
Gyon: Yes, healers. That’s why I’m interested. I’m not very interested in religions. I mean, I used to go to church and used to go to Temple. You know, the Temple is a very interesting place in Chinatown.
LEHRER: I was wondering, too, because your work does have elements of abstract expressionism and also some figuration to it, were you influenced at all by the conventional schools of art history? Are you trying to blend these concepts of ritual with the traditions of art history?
Gyon: Blend. Everything is hybrid. I always use juxtaposition—so high culture and low culture. I am always trying to juxtapose emotion and culture. My work does not just focus on shamanism.
LEHRER: Yeah, because it still is in the context of contemporary art and art history and things like that. So for some of your work, Headcount for instance, when I first saw it I was amazed by the way it almost implies an explosive imagination. How do all those faces and characters appear to you? And how do they flow out of you?
Gyon: They just came out. And each piece is different, with different faces. I didn’t make them as a portrait, I just filled them in with emotions. I was transformed by other people. It just came out.
LEHRER: Do you think that they’re all feelings?
Gyon: Yes. I don’t know, it just came out and I can’t explain why. I made it by myself.
LEHRER: You don’t use assistants or anything?
Gyon: Some people helped me with the sewing and stuffing the cotton, but basically I do it by myself.
LEHRER: That’s what’s so interesting about art criticism is that sometimes we take meaning from the work that’s so much different than what’s intended.
Gyon: So different, yeah. And I really hate that people want to know what the meaning of the painting is, of these characters. It’s too much for me. I really don’t want to explain everything, every marking
LEHRER: One thing I did want to ask you though is you used to design traditional Korean garments? When did you notice the potential in those fabrics for other creative purposes?
Gyon: I always loved clothing. I always loved the fabrics. I wanted to be a designer more than a painter. I don’t know why I’m a painter. That experience was really amazing. I didn’t even want to be an artist because I thought that it was impossible to live as one. I just went to the interview and had no idea how to make the clothing, I still can’t do it, but the designer hired me because I was really good with using color and good at drawing. And so that’s how I started working there. It was amazing. Amazing. I didn’t know how beautiful the traditional Korean dresses were. I’m very proud of it. It’s super inspiring. I mean, that’s why I went to Japan, because I wanted to study fashion.
Follow Hyon Gyon on Instagram. text and interview by Adam Lehrer