Bui brings bohemia to School of Art

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Photo by Victor Kang.

Even in the digital age, the bohemian life is still alive for artists like Phong Bui, who runs a successful non-profit art magazine, has curated the Museum of Modern Art’s PS1 institution, yet owns no cell phone.

Best known for his whimsical, playful installations — which won him the Eric Isenbeurger Annual Prize for Installation from the National Academy Museum in 2006 — Bui is co-founder of “The Brooklyn Rail”, a political and literary magazine based in New York. Bui, a Vietnamese artist living and working in Brooklyn, spoke to a group of about 30 students at the School of Art on Monday night about his passion for art, publishing endeavors and living “the bohemian life.”

After Bui launched “The Brooklyn Rail” as a biweekly pamphlet in 1998 with author Theodore Hamm, the publication evolved into a full-fledged monthly in 2000. Unlike most publications, however, the magazine is free — its 89 writers and 14 editors all work pro bono, Bui said, and “The Rail” is currently funded almost entirely through private donations.

“It took me a long time to learn how to accumulate writers who would write without pay,” Bui said, adding that he still works for no salary — inciting a round of laughter from the audience.

Bui said that keeping “The Rail” free to the public was important because it gives a platform to burgeoning writers and increases access to their work. The magazine’s low budget has also helped Bui grow as an artist: to keep costs low, Bui said he started drawing portraits of the artists featured in the magazine’s profiles, rather than paying a photographer to take headshots. Bui, who previously had little formal training in drawing, said his technical skills began to grow after a portrait session with painter and photographer Chuck Close ’64, during which he realized how important organization and technical attention is to producing accurate renderings.

Though “The Rail” often features politically-minded content from its writers, Bui said politics do not influence his art. In Vietnam, Bui’s grandfather and great-uncle sympathized with the communist North, while his family members educated in the United States supported Western ideals of democracy. Since his childhood, Bui said he has been caught in the middle when it comes to political issues.

“When I [became] more serious about art, I never thought about how my landscapes or portraits would help my political side to develop, so [politics] never really leaked in,” he said.

Born in Vietnam, Bui moved to the United States in 1980 to study art, first at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and later at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. Bui said that at the New York Studio School, he actually regressed as an artist: it has taken him years to re-learn the fundamentals of drawing and painting after his poor technical education at the school.

School of Art students at the talk said they were inspired by Bui’s committed “bohemian” outlook. For example, despite being an active artist in New York, Bui does not own a cell phone and said he feels no need to get one.

“He made me really think about the impetus to create a publication, whether there needs to be a state of urgency for art to exist and flourish,” Matthew Muturi-Kioi ART ’13 said.

Four sculpture students interviewed said they found this particular lecture extremely relevant to their coursework.

“We’re working on this project where we get a space for a week and have to be creative it,” Randi Shandroski ART ’12 said. “This talk encompassed a lot of the thought that went into this project and is a really good introduction to the week.”

Bui is a senior critic at the University of Pennsylvania, at the School of Visual Arts Graduate Program in Art Criticism and Writings.

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