Chon Gon Byun of Boerum Hill exhibits his life's work at Invisible Dog Gallery
Photos by Joshua Kristal
The Invisible Dog Gallery opens its third season on Friday and Saturday with the kind of bang one has come to expect from gallery director Lucien Zayan, who seems to attract a never-ending supply of intriguing international artists, creators and multi-media exhibitions to his cavernous Bergen Street art house. A three-ringed circus of shows this weekend promises to supply a realm of visual delights.
Friday and Saturday the gallery façade itself will become the stage for a free public exhibition of theatrical-jazz-music-sound-projection-photos, called CHAOS MANOR. The gallery will close Bergen Street for the audience. At 8:30 p.m., an operator will slowly hoist a piano from the sidewalk through an open window, where a pianist will be waiting to play it. The expanse of the gallery’s three-story industrial exterior will serve as canvas for live and recorded sound and projected photos of W. Eugene Smith.
Saturday, three exhibitions will open inside the gallery. And there is where you will find the true star of this show—a vast solo exhibition by Invisible Dog resident artist Chon Gon Byun, a Korean art world celebrity and resident of Beorum Hill for 22 years. Byun, 63, was one of the first resident artists at Invisible Dog, and his work has exhibited in solo shows around the world (he’s been written about in The New York Times some 14 times). This is his largest show, a collection of his life’s work.
Zayan said he is most honored to show Byun’s work on such a large scale. In the first week of the exhibit, the cultural vice-chancellor of Korea is visiting Brooklyn to tour the show.
“He could have a big show anywhere. Any big gallery in Chelsea would happily show his work. But he said no, he wanted to do it here. The day he said he wanted to have a show here, I was happy and proud,” Zayan said.
Byun moved to the United States in 1981 to escape the confines of what he describes as a militaristic government and restrained artistic freedoms. He’s a painter but in recent decades he’s become known for his eclectic creations made from found and purchased objects—planes, statues, old TVs, mannequins, dolls, machines, posters, Buddhas, books, clocks. In past interviews Byun has said he was overwhelmed when he came to New York from Korea with all of the lovely things that Americans throw out, and wanted to give them continued life. Zayan says Byun speaks to his artistic creations each day, but discreetly.
I visited Byun at his apartment on Boerum Place, which has been the subject of more than a few short films. Every inch is covered with decorative displays. Near his bed is a mound of plastic globes. He bounces over the bed to flip a switch. Lit up, they form a playful, homey and sculptural room light. It’s this way with many of his room ensembles: there’s a ton of stuff employed, but it’s not a feeling of clutter that hits you, but instead a sort of relaxed, textural coziness—a living, 3-D wall papering.
Byun is excited when I visit him, both for his show at Invisible Dog, as well as for the fact that he’ll become a U.S. citizen in two days.
“I’ve lived in this country 30 years. This country gave me so many things. It makes me feel stronger,” Byun says.
For a man of 63, the artist looks young. His skin is vibrant, his eyes big and happy, his body lithe and quick to move. I ask him his secret to youthfulness.
“Happy. I’m always happy,” Byun says. “I work all the time. I’m crazy about my work. I like to work! And I am always happy.”
“And, I go to the gym. For 22 years here, I always go. Every three months, I go to the doctor. Strong spirit, strong mind. Always check my body, my spirit, my soul.”
He never drank alcohol, and while he was a heavy smoker, he quit ten years ago.
“Artists drink too much, smoke too much. Can’t control. I stay happy.”
When Byun first came to America, he had no money, he says, and lived in Harlem. “I was so happy. Happy with the freedom.”
Byun said that discovering the black city, and the white city, was very exciting to him. There was energy in both, music, and moving somewhere in the middle was inspiring and titillating, he said. “The energy is fantastic. It is two wonderful worlds.”
We tour his place. His garden is lovely. He shows me a shrine, different arrangements.
“It’s nice here. I love Brooklyn, love the Brooklyn bridge. Five years ago, I met my wife. We married. We have a happy life.”
And with that, we say our goodbyes. Byun and his wife, Kiya, decked in pink socks, high-heeled sandals, a lace skirt, matte lipstick, blue eye shadow and a bright scarf in her hair, are bounding off to the day’s activities.
Byun and Kiya’s garden