Critics’ Picks

Martin Wong, My Fire Guy, 1988, acrylic on canvas, 29 x 36".

New York

Martin Wong

Bronx Museum of the Arts
1040 Grand Concourse
November 4, 2015–March 13, 2016

Gritty and glorious, the Lower East Side of the 1980s and ’90s blazes with bricks and stars in the paintings of Martin Wong. Night skies tattooed with constellations form the backdrops for calico patchworks of tenement buildings rendered in ruddy ochers, browns, grays, gold, and black. Hercules and Hydra arc above the everyday heroes and monsters of the city streets: lovers, junkies, prisoners, poets, fighters, and firemen. Lavishing countless layers of acrylic on every brick that forms this lawless, desperate world, Wong renders each mottled facade in almost carnal detail. The arresting contrast between these intensely corporeal structures and the astral planes above them suggests the key dualities coursing through Wong’s oeuvre: body and spirit, reality and fantasy, the sordid and the divine.

Wong died from an AIDS-related illness in 1999, at the age of fifty-three, and this elegant retrospective is the first to trace his too brief career. Battered walls and closed storefronts may dominate the show, but Wong also crafted intimate interior moments. Firemen were an erotic fixation for Wong, but My Fire Guy, 1988, is neither explicit nor conventionally fetishistic. Completely clothed, the fireman is chastely tucked into bed, his resting figure limned in saintly gold. Cradling a puppy, he is a child’s cherished hero more than a sex object. This tenderness is lacking in Wong’s later, slicker paintings of Chinatown, which revel more superficially in the gaudy ads and architecture along Canal Street. Wong’s Lower East Side paintings are his strongest, in full, magnificent force.