Gregory Byungho Bae, a vital member of the Chicago art community, has died at the age of thirty-five. The entire art community, including Newcity, mourns his untimely passing.
Bae was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on February 2 (Groundhog Day, as he frequently noted), 1986—the Year of the Tiger—to a scientist and a Korean ink painter. Bae’s family immigrated from South Korea to Utah when his older brother, Bosco, was seven months old. His childhood was spent between South Korea and the United States. In his own words, he “left the nest when he was seventeen to be an artist.” He spoke of the decision in a 2019 interview: “I consciously decided to focus on having a life as an artist because I thought it would be the only thing I would enjoy doing if I was stuck doing just one thing until I die. Everyone in my family, at this point, has come to accept my decision to be an artist. So now I feel stubborn and lucky to be an artist.” Since his passing, Bae has been widely memorialized as a gentle, ingenious and deliberate man. New York City-based poet Jean Yoon describes her initial encounter with him: “My first impression of him was mad genius, in the best and most authentic way. His hair was a nest and there was a brilliant sparkle in his eyes, and he was talking about melting down electronics.”
Bae had many nicknames—Don Gregorio, Fratello Greg, Cupid Greg, Garbanzo, Gawain the Green Knight—and equally as many roles: artist, activist, teacher, community organizer, curator, advocate, artist assistant, art handler and exhibition preparator. He was an Aquarius and a self-described introvert who could occasionally be outgoing. Italian artist Niccolò Moronato writes: “As an Aquarian, I can’t think of anyone more Aquarian than Greg: a gentle anarchist, a disciplined irreverent, a pragmatic idealist who knew that in the hyper-objectivity of numbers, measurements and calculations resides the impalpable, astral, almost mystical nature of life and love.” He received a BFA in 2007 from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied painting and philosophy. In 2010, he made his way to Chicago to pursue a master of fine arts in the painting and drawing department (PTDW) at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).
He spent the rest of his life in Chicago, with the exception of a nineteen-month residency in South Korea. Artistic collaborator and friend Tony Lewis writes of Bae’s outsized impact on the city’s cultural sector: “If I’m being honest, being a Chicago-based artist was completely defined by grabbing a drink with Gregory Bae anytime, anywhere. That was Chicago for me. As far as I’m concerned, that was the whole fucking city. In eleven years Greg and I traveled to New York, Los Angeles, Aspen, Maine, Miami, New Orleans, Milan, Florence and a few other places. Each time it just felt like Bonnies, Two-Way, Innertown Pub, The Whistler, Harbee’s or the Cove”—bars they frequented when Bae lived in Hyde Park.
Greg was nothing short of legendary to the 2012 graduating class of SAIC. While developing a practice that grappled with consumption and technology—finding form in curious, esoteric drawings and objects, he also endeared himself to the entirety of the SAIC community. Michelle Grabner, senior chair of PTDW, writes: “He was demanding and unabashedly critical of art, artists and their ideas. Greg’s criticality was refreshing and welcome, and I thoroughly enjoyed sparring with him when I was in his studio, or at gallery openings, or a social gathering…I will profoundly miss Greg and his demand for deep critical assessment.”
Dana DeGiulio, who co-taught Bae’s PTDW graduate seminar with Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, remembers Greg as invaluable to the 2012 cohort [sic]: “Greg was the sweetest, sharpest person, a critical, fucking Romantic artist, prince of helpers, agile and generous and tenacious and careful, unafraid.” Bae was also known for being a great nurturer of the practices of his friends and colleagues. He was a co-conspirator in DeGiulio’s infamous car crash intervention at The Suburban, Grabner’s project space, in 2013—cutting the airbag out of the Buick at 5am while simultaneously distracting suspicious police. NYC-based artist and former roommate Michaela Murphy writes of Bae’s seemingly limitless capacity for collaboration and support: “Greg’s hand is present in so much work from the Chicago arts community and beyond. Because he was, without fail, game. Game to help his friends (and Greg had so many friends) brainstorm, fabricate, troubleshoot and do the heavy lifting of installing their work. He spent endless hours in his own studio but other people’s studios, too—generously, kindly, carefully helping everyone else realize and polish their own ideas.” Bae went on to teach in the PTDW department at SAIC, as well as with the community art organizations Marwen and the Hyde Park Art Center.
Selected Exhibitions and Honors: Go Big or Go Home
Upon his graduation from SAIC, Bae commenced a prolific near-decade of artmaking, exhibiting and community organizing. In 2014, he temporarily relocated to South Korea to participate in residencies at the Cheongju Art Studio and the Seoul Museum of Art. The work he created in his South Korean residencies was displayed in a 2015 homecoming exhibition, “Orients,” at the Chicago Urban Art Society. He invited the curatorial duo J. Gibran Villalobos and Will Ruggiero (JGV/WAR) to organize the exhibition via the curious harbinger “go big or go home.” True to this resolution, preparations for the show included a trip to the local YMCA to research one of his most renowned projects, a tire in suspended motion running on a treadmill. Villalobos acted as a red herring, distracting staff and onlookers by running on a treadmill while Bae, next to him, calculated—with a full-sized car tire—the speed at which he would have to walk to traverse the circumference of the Earth in a year’s time. JGV/WAR writes of working with Greg: “We had deep conversations about orbits around the world, our orientations toward the cultural sector, and what it meant to constantly have to move between worlds. Greg possessed an adept ability to move across those worlds and realms, and truly, this is what made him such a generous and compassionate man. In order to enter spaces, he was thoughtful to ask questions, pause to think, and consider where he stood, in community, with others… It doesn’t escape us that Greg passed on the six-year anniversary of the exhibition that we opened with him. We don’t know what to make of the coincidence; but it only highlights a standout statement in the exhibition text: ‘In and out of the machinic space of mechanical time.’”
The tire sculpture, officially titled “24-7, 365,” has reached a level of local infamy to which few can aspire, and resulted in at least one marriage: between DePaul Art Museum interim director Laura-Caroline de Lara and artist Rodrigo Lara Zendejas (hence the aforementioned nickname “Cupid Greg”). In 2019, Bae wrote that he considered the De Lara-Zendejas union a personal achievement, calling it “hands-down the most incredible [reaction to my work] so far.”
Bae’s art was integral to his personal life as well. He met the London-based artist and animator Ali Aschman in grad school at SAIC in 2012. Many years later, Bae was one of fifty-plus artists who participated in the 2018 group show “Living Architecture,” at 6018North. He and Aschman reconnected at the opening. Aschman shares that later that evening, following a summer storm, they both received the same message on their respective fortune cookies: “you will soon be on a secret mission of the heart.” They started dating and were partnered until his passing. The storyboard pictured below was Aschman’s submission to the 2020 deep quarantine webcomic series “Rescue Party,” which invited artists to fantasize about a post-pandemic world. Aschman writes: “As Greg and I were in a long-distance relationship, I was feeling quite despondent about how long we might be forced to remain apart, so I made a comic imagining what it would be like to make an epic journey to be reunited with my love. Luckily, this wish later came true and I was able to spend several months with Greg last year despite restrictions.” Many contributors emphasized what a romantic Bae was, taking care to note that his platonic love was expressed equally as freely. “Greg believed in love. Greg was a romantic. He believed in believing,” artist Devin T. Mays says.” We often spoke on the importance of believing in love… To never lose sight or site of this significance, Greg made sure to tell me he loved me, often. He would always tell me he was grateful to have me in his life.”
Bae was also featured in the 2019 group show “Lasting Impressions” at the Chicago apartment gallery LVL3. At this point he was well-known for works made from found and repurposed materials, often including inoperative appliances and the instruction manuals they came with. LVL3 director Vincent Uribe shares, “To this day his interview remains one of our favorite published pieces for the ease and honesty put out…Greg was thoughtful of the whole group, cared for others, he was straightforward, humble and always appreciative—the type of attitude that makes our work feel like we’re doing something right and building genuine connections with good people.”
Bae’s last major exhibition was a grandiose series of gestures, objects, events, portals and conversations that took place at table, an intimate Chicago apartment gallery. In this exhibition, his lifelong fascinations with numbers, systems, geography, birthdays/astrology, time/space and coincidence/destiny converged. The 2019 exhibition, was titled “Black Hole of Love,” which is the translation of the Korean title given to the American romcom “Groundhog Day” (also the holiday Bae’s birthday fell on) for South Korean release. Bae developed an affinity for the Korean version while in residence there. As per table founder Kyle Bellucci Johanson, Bae requested that the show take place during the coldest, darkest month of the year. Artworks displayed included a series of preserved drawings, kinetic objects, a geo-directional video and a taxidermied rooster that appeared to breathe (via animatronics). Writes Johanson, “‘Black Hole of Love’ was a constellation of poetic experiments attempting to freeze time. Greg magnetized an atomic clock’s second hand [“It Shall All Be Mine,” pictured above], placing it in a relentless and futile effort to move forward, a kind of tiny quiet purgatory… Greg referred to this work as a response to losing love and indulging in that loss, saying, ‘a cosmic indifferent force will not yield to anyone’s heart. The desire to stop time is, nevertheless, as egotistical as it is romantic.’” Johanson writes of their friendship, “I witnessed and was a recipient of Greg’s earnest and selfless effort to be who and what the people he loved needed. It often made me uncomfortable to accept this kind of love, and frequently I felt heartbroken when I couldn’t adequately do or be the same for him…The only worthwhile reason to make art, or to do anything for that matter, is to make friends. I hope his ghost visits me for the time I have left. He didn’t really need to make any art or metaphors to suspend time.”
“I’ll never forget that show because every piece in it felt like a coded set of instructions on how to eventually put my heart back together and work my way back into the world and tell the tale,” Yoon writes of visiting the exhibition. “To me, these works were sweeping, tragicomic gestures stylized by personal, cultural, hermetic signals. They indicated to me that any quantity of personal pain, of longing and heartbreak, can be sublimated and transformed in the futility of reanimating the dead with mechanized breath, etching raindrops onto glass, driving west with the intention of canceling out the displacement of the earth’s rotation, and so on.”
Community Organizing: Organizing the Organizers
Beyond that of his personal studio practice, Bae’s legacy is one of tireless community organizing and dedicated social justice work. In the age of social media-induced parasocial and superficial relationships, Bae committed to slow organizing and deliberate relationship-building in pursuit of his anti-racism initiatives. In spite or perhaps because of this, Bae was inflexible in his aversion to social media, even during the year we all only saw each other through screens. He did not like being photographed, and had virtually no online presence, save his website.
Bae was co-founder, co-director and curator of the McKinley Park alternative exhibition space Bill’s Auto. He ran the program in the waiting room of an old auto-body mechanics shop alongside siblings Tony Lewis and Chenée Lewis. During his tenure he organized solo exhibitions for Troy Briggs, Kelly Lloyd, Patrick Quilao and Johanson. Bae also recently curated an exhibition and accompanying sound series (with Kikù Hibino) for Buddy, a new artist-run exhibition space inside the Chicago Cultural Center: Psychoanalyst animals scares commentator, current cartoon improved.
Members of Chicago’s immigrant artist community emphasized that Bae was someone who intimately understood the experience of being a foreigner, and provided unwavering support to Chicago transplants—especially in the early stages of the pandemic. Moronato, who spent quarantine in Chicago with his partner, Alice Crippa, writes: “He always reached out to us last year and he never, ever let us be alone. Greg knew what it meant to be immigrants without the protection of a school or a workplace—to just be an object dislocated or stuck on a bigger object called Earth.” Nowhere was his dedication to supporting dislocated populations more apparent than in his final project, Chicago API (Asian, Pacific Islander) Artists United (CAAU), the umbrella collective of artists under which Bae organized a huge number of initiatives within the last eighteen months. He rapidly formed a number of affinity groups and task forces in response to urgent community needs in the wake of both pandemic isolation and the March 6, 2021 hate crimes against Asian Americans in Atlanta.
As founder and director of CAAU (and its informal predecessor, g0d damn), Bae single-handedly mobilized a multi-generational network of artists, including most AAPI-identifying faculty members at SAIC, says art world fixture Patrick “Q” Quilao. Bae worked to build solidarity with like-minded sibling organizations, including the Alcahuetes Social Club, a platform for Latinx creatives, and Chicago Art for Black Futures, a program that raises funds for Black-led organizations, to provide structured spaces for where participants could access resources, build community and obtain financial support. Bae produced the Art Advancing Justice virtual fundraiser in Spring 2021, selling 137 works of art from seventy-nine contributors and raising $18,200 for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Chicago. In response to escalating hate crimes directed at the AAPI community, Bae facilitated online bystander training through SAIC to prepare community members to intercede when they witness a person being subjected to inappropriate or violent behavior, and was part of a volunteer police-accountability group. Maggie Wong, a CAAU collaborator, saw Bae as “a person whose work hinged on the ability of interpersonal and social exchanges to vocalize parts of ourselves buried under the complexity of oppression.”
Many friends and collaborators drew connections between Bae’s studio practice and social justice and organizing work, noting Bae’s ability to transcend personalities and conflicts in pursuit of just principles. Quilao writes that Bae’s early works “[nudged] me to rethink what I should be paying attention to [bearing] resemblance to how Greg carefully brought us, his friends, his people, together from schools, studios, classrooms, artist-run spaces, collectives, residencies and social justice organizations. We were his materials, connected in ways visible and still to be revealed.” Huong Ngô, who is organizing a posthumous correspondence project (details below), was appreciative of Bae’s diplomacy in doing so: “Greg was always creating an opening for dialogue and listening, even when people were grumpy or shouting or shy. Greg made space for all of that. He left us a blueprint for an artistic life.”
Gregory Bae’s Legacy: A Blueprint for an Artistic Life
Gallerist Mike Schuh noted that Bae’s incredible thoughtfulness extended far beyond the art world and cultural realm. He writes that Bae’s tenderness was “surprising in that he was thoughtful beyond reasonable expectations but so consistent that I should have stopped being surprised long ago.” This anecdote was one of countless deeply touching recollections shared with Newcity: “Greg sent me a text this past Father’s Day. About a month ago. ‘Happy fathers day Mike!’ I received zero other such texts from anyone else, which is exactly what I expected! My wife, my daughter and Greg.”
Artist and writer Rashayla Marie Brown eulogized Bae at his July 23 memorial service: “The poetry and brilliance of his work—and how it is a redemption of the underappreciated, overworked, subtle and tender aspects of a dutiful empath—will stay with me for the rest of my life. I realize now that Greg Bae was the kind of art world friend that makes life worth living, that makes being a part of the art community bearable. In a world full of careerists and phony conversations, we need more Greg Bae energy in our lives. Not just for being a skillful and brilliant artist, which he was, but for his deep empathy, emotional availability and consideration of other people that was clearly also in his work.”
Many memorial exhibitions, publications and other projects are still in planning stages. Here are some participatory ways the community continues to hold space:
Huong Ngô organized an online project gathering letters to Greg, called Dear Greg. Contributions may be emailed to email@example.com. The prompt: [Write] a letter in the language you prefer. It can be what you wish you had told him, your favorite story about him, the most hilarious moment you can remember, whatever you think might reveal Greg’s spirit to the rest of the world. It can be raw; write from your gut and heart.
Kelly Lloyd interviewed Bae on February 9, 2021. Excerpts from this interview will be featured on “This Thing We Call Art,” a podcast that will be released in Fall/Winter 2021. If you would like to be notified when this episode is available, sign up to the newsletter at thisthingwecallart.com.
A GoFundMe campaign has been created to accept any donations and contributions toward the Gregory Bae Memorial Fund. Proceeds will go toward supporting the causes and organizations that Greg dedicated himself to in life and that he envisioned supporting in the future. The Fund will also support future exhibitions, documentation and stewardship of Greg’s career and the artwork he left with us. The Gregory Bae Memorial Fund will be managed in partnership between the Bae family and CAAU. For more information and to make a contribution, please visit the Gregory Bae Memorial Fund.
Thank you to all that contributed words and photos. Those remembrances not included herein have been archived for Greg’s family. Thank you Kyle Bellucci Johanson, Patrick “Q” Quilao and Oliver Yi’ Chun Shao for your help with research. Thank you Bosco Bae, Tony Lewis, Nico Moronato and Kellie Romany for your writing support. (Erin Toale)