- By Sophie Arni
Walk into gallery, 30th street. K-town. Blacked-out entrance, mirroring a reflection of my confused self. Knock on the door, gallerist smiles. Mr. Shin, a young elegant Korean man, welcomes me into a small dim-lit black box. An installation in the middle. Interesting - but wait, what are those paintings on the wall? "Culture is not a luxury” I read. Mr. Shin kindly completes my sentence. "It's a necessity." I pause. I’m liking this, a lot. Turns out the painter is Hyon Gyon (b. 1979, Seoul), a South Korea-born, Japanese-educated, New York-based artist. She was inspired by the cult movie about the rise and fall of Dr. Dre's and Ice Cube's N.W.A. rap group Straight Outta Compton for this series. If that is not enticing enough as an introduction, Hyon has a PhD from the prestigious Kyoto University of the Arts and her works are amongst the collection of the Brooklyn Museum alongside other many private and public collections. Armed with an immense skillset, rare creative energy that is contagious as much as it is refreshing, and in tune with current American cultural trends, Gyon doesn't disappoint. In fact, she raises the bar higher for what it means to be a painter, an artist, a Korean woman artist in 2016.
Known for her use of shamanistic iconography, her early canvases were filled with energy, mythologies, fantastical faces of euphoric despair. Since she moved to NYC and adopted many new influences into her work, she uses a lot of text in her paintings and branched out into installations of various found objects and fashion design. A global artist, well suited for Global Art Daily. A day later, thanks to her generous Shin Gallery, I have the pleasure to visit the artist studio located in between right at the edge between the gallery-filled Lower East Side and the vibrant Chinatown. Accompanied by Mr. Shin, she shows me around and poses in front her works on the ground floor. The upper floor is reserved as living quarters. We sit down with succulent watermelons.
Sophie Arni: Thank you for opening the doors of your studio. This space is incredible! Two floors, large open spaces. And this beautiful signage, on point. Hyon Gyon: (laugh) Yes, I recently moved in. S.A.: First off, what made you gravitate towards your preferred mediums? You have a formal training in painting and I see that your canvases become quite sculptural at times. You use treads, cotton, hair and other types of materials on your 2D works. For the 3D, you tend to work with found objects? Tell me about your process. Hyon Gyon: Yes, I like to use textiles a lot in my paintings. I actually used to work at a Korean traditional dressmaker atelier, where I learned about the different types of silk and thread that exist. Then, me being me – I wondered what would happen if I burned some pieces with a lighter. I liked this effect, so I used the technique for a series of painting. About my installation, you can call them sculptures – I buy everything from second-hand shops. If something catches my eye, I buy it, and I use it in some way.
S.A.: And New York City’s thrift shops… you must be in heaven. Hyon Gyon: I adore the thrift shops or dollar shops around Chinatown especially. You find the most random things.
S.A.: You’re a sculptor, painter. I sense that multi-media plays a large role in your practice. Do you plunge in other mediums as well? Video, for example? Hyon Gyon: Yes actually. Let me show you, a video I produced while I still living in Japan. I spent 9 years there in total, and as you pointed, I diversified the mediums I used. I don’t want to be limited with only one medium. [Gyon shows me her video on her Macbook. The video was in line with her pop culture, bright colors, mixed media, found objects aesthetic. It was a compilation of footage of her eating a massive amount of fast and greasy food. Cream and udon noodle soup together, if you dare to imagine. Gyon attacks common sense in this powerful video of food ingurgitation followed by rejection. A complicated web of influences, whether socio-political or more psychological, shape this work.]
S.A.: Were you influenced by Mike Kelley at all?
Hyon Gyon: I really enjoy his work, although at this point of time, I had no idea who he was. S.A.: Well let me rewind for a minute, I see so many influences in your work - such an spectrum of themes and cultural references you have, it's really wonderful. Your early works dealt with shamanism and Korean folktales for starters. How did you go from traditional Korean mythologies to West Coast rap? Hyon Gyon: That's the question many people have. They like to ask on the violence of my work, which can seem very frustrating sometimes. People understand shamanism as performances and mystical rituals. That’s not the point. A shaman is someone who heals. It’s someone who helps you express your negative energy out. So when I watched Straight Outta Compton, I felt the anger, the oppressed energy of these rappers. I felt it so deeply, it really moved me. I think rap is much more than music. Rap acts like the shaman to release all that compressed energy. It’s all about purifying the soul. So I was interested in shamanism while in Asia, you can say I am finding new shamans in America.
S.A.: Rappers as shamans. Tell me more about your years in Japan. How did that influence your work? Hyon Gyon: I lived in Kyoto, which is a very traditional city compared to others. I think that the geishas you still see in the streets, the many Buddhist temples, zen gardens all had an impact on me, and on my works. I was particularly inspired by the gold-leaf painting technique of the screen Nihonga paintings. So I used gold on my paintings, and loved the effect. Being in Japan was eye-opening, transformative. I also made the switch there from oil to acrylic painting. S.A.: When you came to NYC, you didn’t speak English right? Did you feel tied to your Korean roots? Were you looking for a Japanese community here? Hyon Gyon: NYC is an international city and I don’t feel tied to a certain nationality group here at all. I hang out with artists, wherever they are from. Latinos, Europeans, it doesn’t matter too much. I like this close-knit community. And I get to hang with my compatriot Shin when I want to speak Korean. Yes, it was difficult to adjust at first. Coming to New York was one of the scary moments of my life. But now that I’m here and have access to a whole new cultural world – I feel blessed. I am made of culture. I find words and caption that inspire me on Instagram and then add them to my paintings. And English is such a powerful language. There are just some things you can’t translate.
S.A.: Very interesting. And last question, I noticed that you started painting on blazers and khaki pants. How do you feel about fashion and art intersecting? Do you think you might continue creating more of these works? Hyon Gyon: Fashion was actually my first trajectory. It’s funny how I ended up in art. I was accepted and getting ready to enroll in Bunka [the fashion school that taught Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto and Kenzo amongst others]. But I didn’t come from a wealthy family, and Bunka is a private school. The tuition was just too high – so I applied to public, free universities. I was surprised and honored I got accepted at Kyoto, and the rest is history. I started out designing 'chima jeogori' and now I’m painting shamanistic faces unto Zara blazers. Life is transformative this way, but I enjoy the direction my work is going. I want to expand. There is so much potential with fashion and painting - this intersection interests me a lot.