For Hyon Gyon, making art is personal. Colourful, spirited and devotional both in her process and concepts, this multitalented mixed-media artist is making waves internationally with her enigmatic paintings. The Forumist delved deeper into her influences and body of work.
Born and raised in South Korea, Hyon Gyon earned her master’s degree and doctorate at the Kyoto City University of Arts in Japan, and then relocated to New York City to pursue her journey in the international art world. “I wanted more experience in new places and had nothing to lose, so it didn’t take a second to decide,” she says about her move to the US. “One of my biggest strengths, and also weaknesses, is that I don’t get intimidated by new environments or new things. I am not used to analysing or comparing them.” She quickly fell in love with New York’s melting pot of art, culture, food and fashion co-existing in one place. “It helped not being reluctant or prejudiced against anything. It also affected my work, making me think, ‘Why not? Nothing is impossible.’ It’s made me more flexible about how I select my materials or motifs, and how I choose the size or match colours.”
Hyon Gyon reflects upon her artwork as an act of devotion in itself. “It’s an attitude towards something so valuable – beyond the boundaries of age, nationality or sex,” she says. “That value makes me think I could throw all the rest away.” She uses a wide range of unconventional materials and techniques, creating mixed-media paintings that tower over her as she works in the studio. For each one, she shapes ideas and selects motifs before entering a cycle of adding and removing visual content. “The more time I spend on my art, the more I feel attached to it. But it also requires a lot of time and patience,” she says. “The artworks that require fabric and layering, or the ones using mixed media such as fabrics and foams – they take time and energy, so there are health risks. Some
of my works are finished in one day, some take longer than a year.”
Inspired by Korean shamanism, Hyon Gyon believes that art has the power to evoke emotion from within people and transform it into other forms of energy. When her grandmother died, Hyon Gyon’s family called for a shaman to release her soul to a good place where she could reconcile with other family members and live a peaceful life after death – it was an experience that had a cathartic effect on the artist. “It felt like my imaginings had been made real,” she said about the ceremony. She explains that shamanism still exists in the 21st century, despite persecution and contempt from other cultures, because it has a place in all phases of people’s life – from birth to death. And the release she felt during this ceremony plays a significant role in the way she approaches her practice. “For me, art should be helpful and useful – I believe that is the fundamental power of art.” She aims to touch people’s emotions as they deconstruct the layers of her tumultuous paintings with their eyes, giving them an opportunity to come to terms with their emotions and release that energy into the world.
The bright colours she uses are juxtaposed by shadowy imagery, and her use of strong, gestural strokes gives each piece a clear texture – a very material presence. As she creates new pieces, her own body becomes part of the work, a physical connection that she considers an essential part of her creative process. “I believe that people can see strong vibrations arising from the physical contact between my body and my artwork,” she says. “Those works I’ve created through intense use of my hands and feet and other parts of my body do not lie.” In this way, the honesty of her artwork is important to Hyon Gyon. In the dark figural abstractions that are characteristic of her work, viewers can see a reflection of the artist herself – her thoughts, struggles and life force emanating as a curious, even uncanny, energy from the work. “I prefer large paintings because they make me feel that I have achieved something beyond the usual limits. I feel alive over and over again during the process.”
Hyon Gyon has never been satisfied following the basics or technical rules imposed by art school. “I don’t do well when I’m taught by someone else,” she says about her university experience. Her methods can be described as untraditional, even unorthodox, but such categorisations have never fazed her or deterred her creative passion. “I have to choose my own rules and my own way because that’s the only way that works for me.” Her studio is filled with objects and materials that she collects for her art making. While she works, she has to have everything out and feel totally surrounded by her materials. “Naturally, it gets messy when I work, but sometimes that disorder and chaos relate to my ideas. When I am surrounded by materials while I make plans in my head, new ideas about my next work come up and they lead to other ideas.”
The vivid colours and extraordinary combinations that she uses often compete for attention on the canvas. She attributes this to her time spent working in a traditional-clothing shop while in South Korea, choosing the designs of textile materials and matching colours. “I think this gave me a good eye for colour,” she says. “Traditional Korean clothes have extraordinary combinations and people are not afraid of using complementary colours at the same time. I am not reluctant to use various combinations of textures or colours – I enjoy it. Life is too short to use boring colours.”
Although the appearance of her busy studio suggests otherwise, Hyon Gyon is actually a minimalist. She has even let go of her name for the sake of her artwork. Born Hyun Kyoung Park, she adopted the sleek artist name of Hyon Gyon during her time in Japan. “Most people, including those who know me, have no idea how to pronounce my [given] name, but someday I hope everybody will be able to say and remember it,” she says. A minimalist in lifestyle choices, too, Hyon Gyon refrains from consuming alcohol and tobacco, and keeps her belongings to a minimum as she follows her instincts, moving across the globe for her different art projects.
She recently spent two months in Kyoto working 12 hours a day to create her largest piece yet for the Culture City of East Asia 2017 exhibition. “It’s a 20.4-metre-long mixed-media artwork made with fabric foam and oil paint that I worked on like crazy for a month and two weeks. I am quite proud of what I have devoted to this project and the time I spent on it.” A solo exhibition at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Hong Kong also opened this September, but her next move is to relocate to Europe, where she will be making new work in Poland. “This project will be a big lifetime chance for me, as an artist and a person,” she says.
Hyon Gyon is feeling empowered about her decisions to pursue art internationally, viewing the constant change of surroundings and environments in her life as part of the flow of life that she has chosen for herself. “Everything I do is something that I have decided,” she says. “I have never considered the risks, nor have I regretted my attempts. That’s how I have lived and that’s how I will continue to live my life, always following my instincts.”
Words by Eimi tagore-erwin