Martin Wong's "Attorney Street" (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Pinero), 1982-1984. Oil on Canvas. 35.5 x 48 inches. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edith C. Blum Fund.
Martin Wong’s “Attorney Street” (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Pinero), 1982-1984. Oil on Canvas. 35.5 x 48 inches. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Edith C. Blum Fund.

In a time when New York City was a four-letter word, and the Lower East Side a dirty, dangerous place, an urban Paradise emerged—where energies collided amongst the rubble and debris, and from it came art. Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, currently on exhibit at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, describes that very energy, brought forth through the magnificent brushstrokes and stark imageries of this very complex yet endearing artist.

Born in Portland, Oregon and raised in San Francisco in a middle-class, Chinese-American household, Wong eventually gravitated to the counter-culture scene of the Beat poetry and the Hippie/Flower Power movements of the 1960s. Wong’s sense of personal alienation and isolation brought about a need to seek out unimaginable conquests, to find out further what it means to be Asian and gay in America—a vibrant and fascinating artist amongst the underground.

In the museum’s first gallery, Meyer’s Hotel: the Early Years in Lower East Side, chronicles Wong’s first visit to New York City in 1978, a period of great despair and insolation. Not knowing anyone and spending much time with himself, he created rather dark yet depictive paintings that captured the essence of being alone in a lonely city.

In the second, Loisaida 1982-1992, Wong becomes involved in the community that nurtured the Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Pinero and its artistic hub known as the Nuyorican Movement. Wong absorbed the sights and smells of the Lower East Side—the good and the bad, the decay and the strengthening, the buildings and the sidewalks—he took it all in and expressed them in his works.

The third section, The Carceral City: Scenes of Prison and Storefronts, depicts the harsh reality of what it means to be imprisoned—within a prison cell, an impoverish community or one’s own mind. The images of grimy storefront gates are compared to that of a prison cell and vice versa—a stark reality of man’s vulnerability to himself and to the confined environment at the behest of society.

The last, Chinatown, is about Wong’ return to San Francisco and reconnecting with his Chinese heritage. Paintings of images such as Bruce Lee, China Dolls, lanterns and pagodas are indicators of what Wong remembers growing up and of how these stereotypes still hold true in the minds of middle America.

As I approached each gallery, it is noticed that Wong was fascinated with the images of American Sign Language and bricks. Looking very closely at My Secret World, 1978-1981, its detail shape and colors comes to mind graphic design (linear and compact) but with a touch of stark color and randomness. The fact that three of his paintings appear in his bedroom for the viewer to see, it can be said that it is a “painting within a painting”—a concept quite common within most of his work.

Life can be quite hard in the city and nothing can be more apparent that the work entitled In the Money, 1986. In this round-shaped image, a man kneels clinging to a handful of dollars surrounded by the sky and abandoned buildings—a kind of dystopian hell. The blazing reds and browns overlap and encaged the image of the man, as if there is no escape. Financial security or not—it’s hopeless.

I first came to know about Martin Wong in this work Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Miguel Pinero), 1982-1984. It pays homage to his good friend, underground poet Miguel Pinero and though this work, all is for show: fine detail (the frame itself a work of art), finite depiction of graffiti writing, hand signals, brick buildings and handball court gates—striking and direct all the same. In another work, Sharp and Dottie, 1984, we observe a couple sitting and holding each other atop a rubble area as the building behind them hovers like a large yellow/brown cloud—as if they were waiting for a sign of hope and to escape their isolated existential nightmare.

For Martin Wong, the importance of the good and bad of life was always apparent in his works. It was his belief to paint as he saw it—its last breath. Diagnosed with HIV, he spent his last years with his parents and built a small series of works. One in particular, Euphorbia Obesa, 1997-1998, sees his world as monotone yet still full of life, like the many potted cacti that his mother kept in her backyard at the family’s house.

Lastly, as I was exiting, two little rooms, Eureka / San Francisco and The Martin Wong Archives, came to my immediate attention. Besotted, a galaxy of photo assemblages, drawings and notes, plus several of his Picasso-like self-portraits graced the rooms—a great ending to a great artist; a lasting contributor to an important period in late 20th century contemporary art.

The exhibition will be on display till February 14 in New York. The Bronx Museum of the Arts is located on 1040 Grand Concourse in The Bronx, New York City.

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