BRONX MUSEUM OF THE ARTS | NOVEMBER 4, 2015 – FEBRUARY 14, 2016
The title of the powerful new Martin Wong retrospective at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Human Instamatic, refers to the artist’s period as a street portraitist in Eureka, California in the late 1960s and early 1970s where, after graduating from college, he offered up his sketching services for $5 a pop. But the term also serves as an overarching theme of the exhibition. In this gathering of ninety-six paintings, the largest assembly of Wong’s works to date, the curators highlight Wong’s uniquely porous receptivity to the world around him, as well as his powers of transmission and interpretation. Wong drew from wildly disparate influences to create passionate, poetic, and meticulous works, at once personal and conceptually concise. He was a truly singular artist, and while taking in the breadth of his output at the Bronx Museum, one cannot help but feel just how great the losses of that era were, not just to AIDS but to the cultural life of the city.
Wong has been the subject of a steady revival in the last few years. The Bronx show is the third chapter in an unofficial recent trilogy that began with Danh Vo’s installation of Wong’s personal collection of curiosities and Americana at the Guggenheim in 2012. This was followed in 2014 by City As Canvas: New York Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection at the City of the Museum of New York, drawn from Wong’s considerable collection of graffiti and related ephemera, which he donated to the museum before he left New York in 1994. Wong’s influences and interests were so multivalent that his legacy cannot be reduced to any one medium, but it is his paintings that are his most poignant and most accessible legacy. An imaginary fourth chapter might further focus on Wong’s writing and his relationship to the Nuyorican poetry scene.
The current exhibition focuses on Wong as a creative force, organizing his paintings and some early archival material into chronological and thematic chapters, including self-portraits from his teenage years, a few early ceramics, and a rare, large-scale triptych from the late 1970s. But the exhibition is dominated by work made during Wong’s densely prolific New York years, including his sign language paintings, paintings and poetry collaborations with his friend and poet Miguel Piñero, his prison and storefront paintings, as well as his almost jarring late turn toward subjects relating to Chinatown and Chinese-American stereotypes and kitsch.
Born in 1946, Wong grew up in San Francisco. After receiving his undergraduate degree in 1968, he spent time with various hippie communes and artist collectives, creating props and sets for the theater collective the Angels of Light, as well as their better-remembered spin-off, The Cockettes. Wong relocated to New York in 1978, at the age of thirty-two, first moving to a waterfront SRO along the South Street seaport, before landing himself in a sixth floor walk up on Ridge Street, near Avenue B, and just around the corner from ABC No Rio. It was the vibrancy of his community, the romance of the East Village and downtown Manhattan—at once impoverished, apocalyptic, and vibrant—reinforced by the inspirational force of Piñero, one of the founders of ABC No Rio, that became the substance of the extraordinary paintings that followed. He quickly established a firm repertoire of motifs and techniques, mixing ripped-from-the-headlines subjects, images from the street, poetry, and text, with imagery and signs so dense with personal cosmic symbolism that they sometimes have the aura of the occult. All are rendered in a gritty color scheme that seems to still draw from the raw earth palette of his ceramics training.
Tell My Troubles to the Eight Ball (1978 – 81) features a fortune-telling ball coasting across the sky abreast stylized flames and smoke, further bordered by ghostly human skulls, imagery drawn from Wong’s travels in Asia in the 1970s and study of Himalayan art. Paintings like Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (1980) or Brainwashing Cult Cons Top TV Star (1981) introduce Wong’s use of American sign language motifs, which he coyly anointed the first ever series of “Paintings for the Hearing Impaired.” Set against a plain, chalkboard background, offset by the painted trompe l’oeil brick frame, these disembodied hands are adorned only with the formal white cuffs of business attire, imbuing these headlines with an esoteric mystery and abstract power. At the same time, the banal nature of the text and Wong’s cartoonish style puts the work on par with the best pop surrealism of his era. Moreover, while it may seem a stretch to link Wong’s employment of language and writing into his canvases to Chinese calligraphy, it is precisely Wong’s use of a seemingly esoteric visual language as the sole content of his works, and his linking of these disparate forms of art and visual communication, that makes Wong’s legacy so distinct.
His earliest works, such as My Secret World, 1978 – 1981 (1984), tend to focus on his immediate surroundings offering a coarse, lonely studio interior, one that pays homage to Vincent van Gogh’s Vincent’s Bedroom at Arles. But, seen from the exterior, the painting has an added layer of voyeurism that locates us firmly in New York and the dense proximity of tenement life. Figures only begin to appear circa 1984 and are still diminished by architectural and symbolic forms, as with the two huddling figures, canoodling in the ruins outside a myopic building in Sharp & Dottie (1984). Portrait of Mickey Pinero at Ridge Street & Stanton (1985) features an ominous orange sky, the combined constellations of a pistol, an eight ball, a beer can, and the image of a heart made of bricks, resolutely repelling a fired bullet. As suggested in the exhibition catalogue, Wong manages again and again to mix politics with sentiment; his figures are full of a romantic naiveté, even as they are set against the backdrop a city that brutalizes and then abandons them. These themes are highlighted further in the complex and contradictory thematic mix of surveillance, violence, and masculine sexual liberation found in his prison series.
Wong was an artist of paradox, seamlessly mixing high and low art forms and confounding any obvious expectations of ethnic, cultural, or sexual affiliation in his works. He was Chinese-American, but his works often have more akin with Latin American painting movements and styles. He received his degree in ceramics from Humboldt State, pursued architecture for two years at UC Berkeley, and was a skilled Chinese calligrapher, but might easily be mistaken for an untrained outsider artist. Although retrospectively considered an icon of the era’s downtown gay art scene, Wong was significantly older than his “club kid” contemporaries like Keith Haring and Tseng Kwong Chi. Instead, his sexuality was perhaps rooted in the pan-sexual hippie communes that he associated with in San Francisco, and a fascination with hyper-masculinity and homo-sociality that appears again and again in his works.
Despite the bounty of material on display, the exhibition has at its center a tremendous feeling of longing and loss. Wong was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, and subsequently moved back to his mother’s home in San Francisco, where he died in 1999. His productive period as a painter was essentially a scant but prolific twenty years, and it is difficult not to project our knowledge of Wong’s fate, and that of his pre-gentrification community, into the content of his paintings. His works are brimming with the life he lived, imbuing his subjects with pathos, grandeur, and romance, as well as an almost prophetic awareness of life’s obsolescence.
INGRID DUDEK is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Art Asia Pacific, Art in America, and the Brooklyn Rail