You get to watch life slowly collapse in Martin Wong’s art. Across his career (he died in 1999 aged 53), the Chinese-American artist documented the free love utopianism of 1970s California and then saw everything descend into derelict decrepitude as the reality of urban New York tightened its grip on him. Crime, drugs, prison and the perseverance of immigrant and queer communities, that’s what happens here.
The gallery text is a word salad of unpalatable proportions, but that’s partly because his work isn’t your typical art school dish. Wong took a traditional approach to painting and combined it with his love for Chinese calligraphy, graffiti, hippie performance, and ceramics, mixing it into visceral visions of the world around him.
It starts with Hindu spirituality, naked happenings and heat-soaked street scenes. His California beginnings are wild, hedonistic, fun, but not hugely interesting or good.
That changed when he moved to New York in the 1980s. The harshness and urban decay suited him. His paintings now are full of dirty hotel rooms, filthy brick walls, skulls and eight balls. He paints mouldy ceilings, rusting bed frames and hands spelling out demented headlines in sign language (‘demon dogs drive man to murder’).
The buildings start to crumble, cars are abandoned and stripped for parts. There are piles of rubble, lovers embracing in the ruins of an apartment block. It’s so atmospheric, grim and grimy, with its deeply sombre red and black palette; it’s dystopia, but shot through with romance.
It’s dystopia, but shot through with romance
There’s hope here too. Wong became friends with Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero, ingratiating himself with the Puerto Rican community of New York’s Lower East Side in the process. Piñero’s poetry and stories show up in the paintings, depicting New York as a place where crime and poverty co-exist with community activism and cultural pride.
Then things somehow get filthier. Wong started getting in trouble with the cops, leading to a series of prison paintings filled with bodies piled up in cells and eyes peeking out from behind bars. But there’s still sex and desire; he undermines power dynamics, twists relationships of violence and surveillance to find an outlet for homosociality and lust.
By the time he paints a series of shuttered shop fronts the portrait is complete. Graffiti, prison, poverty and desire, all smashed together in grainy, dirty realism. Wong’s combination of darkness and joy is filthily appealing.
In the final works he returns to San Francisco and explores ‘Chinatown’ as an American concept. They’re clever enough works, full of light and colour, but they lack the power and energy of the New York era.
Wong died in 1999 from an Aids-related illness. But what he left behind is a picture of America where misery meets hope on a level playing field to fight out for supremacy. Neither side, it seems, ever manages to win.