Was this show – which paired works by Chinese-American artist Martin Wong (who died in 1999) with those of Vietnamese-Danish artist Danh Vo, along with an essay and photographs for a forthcoming publication on Wong provided, respectively, by Julie Ault and Heinz Peter Knes – an homage in the guise of a group exhibition? Or was it a solo show disguised as homage? Vo’s artistic practice is a kind of expanded appropriation in which he interleafs works or objects by other artists or unwitting collaborators with his own. The tightly scripted dialogue of this smart and sparsely installed exhibition, which Vo orchestrated, was not so much an homage as a kind of mutual buttressing, bringing Wong’s largely neglected works out of their 1980s Lower East Side niche and into the shimmer of this celebrated younger artist, while anchoring Vo’s production to an inventive historical precedent.
Rather than provide a comprehensive overview of Wong’s work, the exhibition featured a select group of unconventionally installed elements. The hall-like entranceway was packed with pieces providing a condensed history of Wong’s practice: early pen and ink drawings made when he was part of the San Francisco performance group Cockettes (‘Cockettes’, c.1970); Son of Sam Sleeps (c.1983), an acrylic-on-canvas work in which hands spell out the title in sign language (these ‘sign language’ paintings became signature works for Wong, who signed many of his pieces ‘Martin Wong, deaf artist’, although his hearing was perfectly fine); and one of Wong’s last works, a proposal for an AIDS memorial with a rifle-toting Patty Hearst as Hindu goddess against an electric-blue background (Did I Ever Have a Chance, 1999). Together they offered a cumulative portrait of Wong, through indications of biography, sexuality, collaboration and chosen aesthetic devices.
The following room tied Wong’s work even more closely to biographical contingency. Alongside the artist’s handwritten CV (Resumé Consumé de Martin Wong, c.1975) were photographs (one taken by Knes, another a snapshot from the artist’s own archive) taken in his parents’ house in San Francisco, where Wong spent the last years of his life, and where his mother, Florence Wong Fie, still lives. Displayed on a nearby table were prototypes of the forthcoming publication, in which Ault’s text and Knes’s images document the house and its contents – not only Wong’s own works, but also the incredible, extensive collection of antiquities, Americana and Asian ceramics that Wong and his mother amassed. In these images, shelves heave with arrangements of ceramic vegetables, miniature decorative boxes or porcelain deities beside jars stuffed with paintbrushes. Wong’s own work hangs salon style throughout the house, while Mrs. Wong Fie’s meticulously ordered files contain materials relating to the artist’s exhibitions, his well-known collection of graffiti painting, and miscellaneous photographs from his life in New York in the 1980s. Through Knes’s pictures and Ault’s text (both commissioned by Vo), Wong’s house was presented as a Gesamtkunstwerk and a portrait of the artist’s life. The title inscribed on the book’s glassine slipcover (the same title as the exhibition itself) describes the exact location of the family shrine where the urns of Wong and his father are housed: ‘Neptune Society, San Francisco Columbarium, 4th Floor, Dome Room, South Wall, Tier 4, Niche 2.’ A twist reminds us of the central dynamic of this exhibition, however: the book’s title has been handwritten on its glassine cover by Phung Vo, Danh Vo’s father. Vo’s father’s involvement with his son’s art production mirrors that of Florence Wong Fie and her son. More intimately still, Vo turned a pair of cardboard boxes from the Wong house into an art work by tracing their lettering in gold leaf, in a kind of posthumous collaboration (Vodka Tonic, 2012).
The sparse and off-centre installation in the further two spaces allowed more seductive connections and mutual reflections between Vo and Wong to emerge. Vo’s gold-leafed paper bags advertising the Statue of Liberty (Sweet Oblivion, 2012) blinked at Wong’s painting of a stern, brick-faced Lady Liberty hung high in the next room (Mrs Liberty Face, 1990). Vo’s gold-leafed Del Monte box (Del Monte, 2012), while referencing Warhol, also referred obliquely to Wong: one of the first art works Wong had bought was a Campbell’s Tomato Juice box by Warhol, after which his mother began her own collection of similar ordinary cardboard boxes.
The dovetailing of interests and subject matter is typical of Vo’s working process, which feeds off networks, personal or historical contingencies, collaboration and identification with (or, perhaps more accurately, inhabitation of) other artists’ work, or other people’s possessions. But it is a mark of his acuity that the show did not become cloying and that the allusions he drew were not heavy-handed. Despite the fact that its various elements seemed to fit almost too neatly together, Vo handled them with such levity and charm that it was hard not to be seduced by this show of Wong to the power of Vo – or Vo to the power of Wong.