Nearly two decades after the artist’s death, The Bronx Museum of the Arts has mounted painter Martin Wong’s first in-depth retrospective. The show is titled ‘Human Instamatic’, as Wong called himself during a stint hawking portraits in Humboldt County, north of San Francisco where he grew up and where, having returned home to his parents’ care, he died from AIDS-related causes in 1999. Though Wong was relatively unheralded at the time, interest in his work has grown since his death, due in part to Danh Vo’s 2013 Guggenheim exhibition ‘I M U U R 2’. In that show, Vo presented close to 4,000 of Wong’s collected objects, including rare Chinese calligraphic works, racist trinkets and previously unexhibited paintings. Making clear his superb eye and roving intellect, ‘I M U U R 2’ cast Wong in an artist-as-curator/hoarder role, pre-empting our archive-hungry moment when the personal collections of artists are presented as evidence of their aesthetic sensibility, sometimes in lieu of their conventional practice.
If Vo’s approach indulged this archival impulse, The Bronx Museum’s studied focus on Wong’s painting marks a welcome shift. Nearly 100 works are on display, starting with those Wong made upon his arrival in New York in 1978, when he began working as a night porter at a waterfront hotel on South Street, and ending with pieces from his final days in San Francisco. From the very beginning, written language appears frequently: Wong paints titles, tabloid headlines, graffiti tags and excerpts of poetry and play dialogue composed by his friend and sometimes lover Miguel Piñero – a poet, playwright and co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. Words are rendered in both Roman letters and humorously fleshy, disembodied hands that spell out lines in American Sign Language, such as ‘Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder’, in the 1981 painting of the same name.
Ripped from a Weekly World News story on the Son of Sam (Wong seemed to gravitate towards violent spectacle), the sentence formed of gesturing fists is bordered by bricks, another of Wong’s fixations. The artist layered burnt oranges and iron reds until the paint developed the texture of cracked earth, each unexpectedly sumptuous block outlined by golden-hued mortar. These bricks form the smouldering backdrops for the Lower East Side tableaux for which Wong is best known. With a lusty approach that, at times, seems equal parts Tom of Finland and Robert Crumb, Wong portrays the black and Latino residents of his adopted neighborhood in intimate and isolated scenes that, dwarfed by abandoned and flame-lit nighttime cityscapes, traffic in an apocalyptic romanticism. Couples huddle in junk-strewn lots in front of monolithic walls; heavily muscled boxers embrace in a labyrinth of chain-link fencing; two firemen (perhaps Wong’s greatest obsession) kiss, as a dilapidated housing project looms behind them.
The show gives equal space to Wong’s later works. A series of jail-set paintings inspired by Piñero’s stories and further embellished by Wong’s fertile erotic imagination, in which shirtless, soft-eyed men lounge in their cells, join three heartbreakingly stark black and white paintings of flora made at the very end of his life. Also present are a number of paintings joyfully delving into Chinese-American kitsch: San Francisco’s Chinatown, Bruce Lee, azure Himalayan demons and Wong himself, sneering in a cowboy hat with a votive candle-style portrait of Jesus on its brim. Most striking were a series of large-scale storefront paintings made in the mid-1980s. The massive monochromatic metal grates and bluish-white Spanish Pentecostal church windows are colour-field experiences that feel surprisingly fresh. Depopulated and forlorn, they also commemorate the end of the Lower East Side memorialized in Wong’s earlier works, portraying what Julie Ault describes in the exhibition catalogue as the ‘casualties of yuppification on the cusp of uninvited redevelopment’. The works strike a note, obviously, in today’s New York, as artist-led gentrification continues apace – even in the usually maligned South Bronx where, in October, real estate moguls teamed up with Lucien Smith to host a one-night, celebrity-studded, halloween party-cum-ruin-porn exhibition a mile south of the Bronx Museum. Just as Wong chronicled the ways a working-class minority community can survive and even flourish in spite of urban neglect so, too, could he show how it might wither and die under a deluge of money.