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Art Of The Late Gregory Bae Goes On Exhibit At Museum Of Contemporary Art

The exhibit inspired by Bae, a classically trained painter and 2012 graduate of the Art Institute, examines time in 10 pieces.

24/7, 365 (#5) showcases a Goodyear tire atop a treadmill, spinning at a rate of 2.8 miles an hour. The colors yellow, pink and blue adorn the rubber face of the tire, carrying a resonance of the sam taegueuk, a variant of a symbol that's on the South Korean flag.
Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
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DOWNTOWN — Nolan Jimbo, a fellow at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was tasked in August with curating the next Chicago Works exhibition.

The exhibition features up-and-coming and established artists who are shaping the local contemporary art scene. The only problem: Jimbo, a fresh transplant from out of state, didn’t know any local artists yet.

Jimbo set out on 25 studio visits in three weeks, frantically searching for the perfect fit. And as his search continued from one studio to the next, one name kept popping up: Gregory Bae.

Bae, a classically trained painter and 2012 graduate of the School of Art Institute of Chicago, took his work beyond the canvas to explore deep levels of abstraction with installations and sculptures. He was also involved in supporting artists of color and advancing social justice.

Bae unexpectedly died at 35 in July 2021.

“He was rightly on so many artists’ minds, and almost every single studio visit became a conversation about the work, what he meant to them, what he meant to the community, how brilliant the work was, and I just could not ignore that,” Jimbo said.

During a studio visit with artist Tony Lewis, who’s storing a majority of Bae’s work and was one of Bae’s closest friends, Jimbo was blown away by what he saw, he said.

“I love that [Bae’s work] takes this language of conceptual art — which can be very dry, it can be very philosophical — and it adds this layer of romance and humanism to it,” Jimbo said.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
One Coinciding Minute Felt In Rotation, displays about 50 minutes of footage showing the sunrise in Seoul on side of a screen and on the other, the sunset in New York City, filmed at the exact same time.

Several of Bae’s pieces are themed around time; Jimbo used them to cultivate the Chicago Works exhibition, which includes 10 artworks.

The exhibition is Bae’s first solo show in a museum. It includes work from 2014 to 2019 and explores bridging distances between time and, at times, identity, as he was a first-generation Korean American.

One piece, “24-7, 365,” is a Goodyear tire atop a treadmill, spinning at 2.8 mph. It was created after an artist residency in Seoul; yellow, pink and blue are on the sides of the tire, reminiscent of the sam taegeuk, a variant of a symbol that’s on the South Korean flag.

The tire constantly moves, but it goes nowhere, traveling at the rate it would take to travel one lap around the world in a year. It examines what it’s like to constantly negotiate one’s identity, Jimbo said.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
It Shall Be Mine showcases this interest with the use of magnets installed to the edges of an atomic clock, forcing it to tick in place.

Bae’s residency in Seoul solidified the way he thought about time and space, leading him to experiment with small machines, Lewis said.

“He’s always had as a really very particular scientific or mathematical, tentative understanding, conceptually, the way that the work functions, which goes into ’24-7, 365.’ … That’s a really sharp work in a really simple concept,” Lewis said.

Another piece, “It Shall Be Mine,” has magnets installed on the edges of an atomic clock, forcing it to tick in place, freezing time. Etched raindrops on the clock’s face aid in the allusion.

Credit: The Bae Family
One Coinciding Minute Felt In Rotation, displays about 50 minutes of footage showing the sunrise in Seoul on side of a screen and on the other, the sunset in New York City.

A two-channel video installation, “One Coinciding Minute Felt In Rotation,” displays about 50 minutes of the sun rising in Seoul on one side and the sun setting in New York City on the other — filmed at the same time. They are impossible to view at the same time, confronting “a fantasy of being two places at once,” Jimbo said.

“There’s a beauty and a charm to the simplicity of the materials that he’s using to convey these massive ideas,” Lewis said.

A Genius, Great Artist And Friend

On July 9, an opening reception attracted more than 100 people to view Bae’s exhibition. The crowd was filled with members from the art community, as well as Bae’s family and friends.

Kikù Hibino, a local sound artist and friend of Bae’s, performed pieces inspired by Bae’s work “Ex Radios,” a collage made from electronics manuals, with the final product resembling sheet music.

Hibino recalled seeing the piece for the first time on Bae’s website, calling it beautiful.

Credit: The Bae Family
Ex Radios (2019), by Gregory Bae, is a long, scroll-like collage made from various electronics manuals, with the final product resembling sheet music.

“I had to tell him that,” Hibino said. “He tried to show me and unfold it; I remember, it was so long.”

In 2021, the two created a sound music events series called SN. They hosted performances at the Chicago Cultural Center to highlight underrepresented sound artists.

“He was like an angel to me. He showed up, came into my life kind of out of nowhere, and he brought a bunch of nice friends. … Everybody around him was so soft,” Hibino said.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
Nolan Jimbo, a fellow for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and Kikù Hibino, a local sound artist.

SN was one of many groups Bae was a part of. He co-directed and curated Bill’s Auto, an alternative and experimental art venue in McKinley Park; co-founded the Asian and Pacific Islander artist collective and taught and lectured at universities.

“I think it was just his natural personality to be friends with literally everyone, and he also found a way to show up for everyone, which is not easy to do,” Lewis said. “If I was able to say 50 things at once [to describe him], that’s what I would do. … He was an incredible artist, he was a genius, a great friend, extremely generous.”

Opening almost a year after Bae’s death, the exhibition invoked mixed emotions from some who think Bae should have received more recognition when he was alive.

“… It’s almost inevitable to understand it in the context of a memorial, but at the same time, understanding [it] as a celebration of life for, say, the general public,” Lewis said.

Jimbo said the show is a memorial and an introduction to Bae’s work.

Credit: Melody Mercado, Block Club Chicago
A woman smiles while ready about Gregory Bae’s work at an opening reception in July 9, 2022.

“A lot of the support that the show will offer Greg’s work, he should have enjoyed in his lifetime. So, I think moving forward, it’s important for curators to prioritize working with living artists from historically marginalized communities,” Jimbo said.

The exhibition, in a highly trafficked portion of the museum, attracted people who smiled, cried and took photos of pieces.

“This exhibition hopefully is one of many in a long line that celebrates this kid and his work. Because it’s impactful, it’s powerful and, you know, he was just kind of getting started. … But it’s still incredible to consider what he left us with,” Lewis said.

Bae’s exhibition runs through Jan. 29.

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