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Hyon Gyon at the Parasol Unit

Updated: Feb 24, 2021

In my first blog post I stated that one of the reasons for starting this was to write up some of my art gallery visits... not much evidence of that yet. But here goes... my first blog specifically about an exhibition.

This is the first solo exhibition of the Korean artist’s work in the Europe. Born in 1979, she studied art in Kyoto, Japan and has lived and practised there, New York and Poland.

The exhibition and artist came to my attention from following Parasol Unit on social media, so I had only a vague idea of what to expect in attending the exhibition. I read a brief interview in with her from 2017 which hints at a troubled early life, and the raw emotion expressed in the work exhibited clearly draws upon this. In the interview she also talks about the influence of Korean shamanism in her work which rang alarms bells with me as I’m normally sceptical of artists drawing on mysticism for their creativity. However, what came across most strongly to me were her work ethic and a sense of risk and danger which seemed to encompass the creation of some of her art.

Her works are on a massive scale, one work in particular – When We Were Ugly, created for the 2017 Culture City of East Asia, Kyoto – spans an entire wall of the lower gallery and is over 20 metres in length.

It was to this work that I first turned my attention. It is a mixed media work, largely based on Styrofoam boards, covered in places with bright satin fabric. These have been hollowed out and burnt away generating a vast cratered backdrop to skeletons, skulls and explosive horrors as a great swirling inferno rips across the surface.

I can sense the violence perpetrated on the materials, the burning and melting are as much a part of the exercise of creation as they are about the expression within the image. In the interview above she talks about the danger of the toxic fumes created in the process.

Three works from a similar period complete the lower gallery. These giant acrylic works on board show the recurring symbolism of hair, the shaman, feathers and fur. Black hair swirls like the curling branches of an exotic tree sheltering and enveloping smaller painted figures of people, animals and images from popular culture. The painting Flame (2010) echoes the composition of traditional shamanic art, with the Shaman at the centre, the tree-like hair behind and the often present tiger represented by a medallion. However, the swords, knives and other blades that stab through the images add unease and violence to what would be seen historically as serene devotional paintings.

Upstairs we are introduced to several large sgraffito works – these largely monotone works are a contrast to the rich, brightly coloured intricately painted works with their roots in shamanic imagery. No diamante skulls here, but rather gouged out skulls, faces and genitalia and direct social and political statements scraped into the surfaces. Here the work, still full of symbolism, resembles the crude and expressive capture of the repeated motifs of Basquiat. Where violence as hinted at in the paintings in the lower galleries, it is actually executed here.

With the brief introduction I’d had to her through the interview I’d read, I was in some doubt about the sincerity of her work – particularly the mysticism on which she draws – but left altogether convinced that the emotion and expression poured into her work is deeply felt. This exhibition creates an immediate impression through the scale and vibrancy of the work, but with so many themes and stylistic approaches, it also gives plenty to reflect upon.

We Were Ugly, Hyon Gyon 2017, at Parasol Unit

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