Eugene Hyon: The Non-Ephemeral

“Coming To Brooklyn,” an exhibition of the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists’ Coalition

Reviewed by Susan Scutti

Still photography more than any other art form is all about time. When we “take” a photograph, we essentially snatch a single moment, a single image from the infinite number of moments and images that eternally pass us by. In this way we redeem what is random and pronounce it worthy. Art, though, is an interpretation of the world and not simply a capturing of cascading reality. The artifice inherent in all great photographs, then, is the discovery of what is timeless in what is momentary. And so an exceptional photographer — and Eugene Hyon is exactly that — teaches us what is immutable about our world and ourselves.

Hyon’s range of subjects is vast and he seamlessly moves back and forth between digital and film photography, yet no matter what subject he chooses or which method he selects, he creates with a painter’s eye for composition. Each of his photos evidence the patience required to get things just right and his attention to craft and detail is what holds a viewer’s attention. And although it takes mere seconds to lift a camera and press the shutter, Hyon’s many years of making art and his wide-ranging knowledge of art history inform each momentary image. This timelessness is not only seen but more importantly felt by a viewer. Absolutely nothing he does is throwaway.

His work is currently exhibited in the show, “Coming to Brooklyn,” at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists’ Coalition, as well as on the website Artslant.com. A digital photograph ”Baked Goods and Books” (July 2011) shows a storefront bakery within a yellow brick building which also boasts a sign advertising a Polish bookstore and “Garage Gallery.” A 718 area code in the sign locates this building in Brooklyn and so one infers the neighborhood is Greenpoint, with primarily Polish residents. A huge hat painted beside the sign onto an area of whitewashed wall spills alphabetical letters, words, punctuation marks and phrases from its gaping brim. Significantly, the building stands behind a delicate wrought iron fence delicately painted white. What Hyon conveys in this elegant composition is diaspora as opposed to desperation; looking at this image a viewer senses the success and not just the struggle of American immigration.

In “Welcome to Greenpoint,” July 2011, a painted mural occupies the left half of his photograph while three adults and a baby stroller walk out of the frame in the lower right hand corner. The mural, which is painted in green, blue, white, gray, black and red on a concrete block wall, appears to be a government commission; the banality of its message — “Welcome to Greenpoint BK” — suggests this most of all. Scrawled on top is the indecipherable tag of some local graffiti artist — an embellishment of perfect disrespect. Painted within the mural’s block lettering is a separate image of a smiling, heroic-seeming man as well as a crowd of workers and the proportions of these figures are reminiscent of Eastern European propaganda during the years of the Cold War: the heroic, smiling man is twice the size of “the people.” He neatly echoes and subverts this idea within his photograph; the cluster of real, live people are also half the size of the heroic man, no different from the painted people except for the fact that they are walking away from their supposed leader. Thus, he subtly conveys a feeling of individuals who ignore and disobey what dwarfs them and so escape their historic past of oppression.

It seems appropriate that Hyon would choose digital photography for his urban fringe, but when documenting the natural world, he turns to film and achieves a more classical countenance. “Revival” (2010) and “Dancing at Night” (2005) are both black and white film photographs. The former is a lengthwise (11X14) close-up of leaves at the farthest edge of a branch weighted by snow; despite the starkness of this winter image, with its gray tones and icy whiteness, he impossibly conveys the promise of a Spring bloom. The second photo is an upper story view of city trees; dressed in white lights, they appear to be moving, essentially tangoing against a background of buildings, sidewalk, and street. Because the names of the stores are blurred in the photograph and cannot be read, he suggests that what is most significant and most soulful in the city is the natural world.

Stillness and elegance can be found within each of his images. The subjects and images which another, lesser artist might glibly sensationalize, he calmly observes until he finds a kernel of hope. More importantly, a viewer of his photographs never senses overweening intention or manipulated intervention; what is uplifting occurs simply and as a result of patient witness. And so the rigorous, spiritual beauty infused in each of his images prevents his photographs from becoming lost in the noise of the temporary and trivial.