New York

Martin Wong

Semaphore Gallery

There’s a lot of talk about Lower East Side art, but Martin Wong makes it. He paints the neighborhood. He captures the dual-edged glamor of the rubble, the love among the ruins.

This show was titled “Paintings for the Hearing Impaired.” Nearly all the paintings in the show contain sign language of the kind used by the deaf. I never realized that these signs resemble the letters they signify until I saw Wong’s renderings. He draws them as stylized hands emerging from French cuffs, looking like some sort of Assyrian or Phoenician alphabet. Often his sign sentences appear in the night sky over red-brick tenements, outlined in gold against the blue, like constellations. And the constellations are there, too. That’s another Wong motif: Cancer, Hydra, Procyon—stars as signs, connected by lines.

Many of Wong’s paintings contain titles or inscriptions in the ordinary written word as well as the handmade one. My Secret World, 1984, depicts Wong’s hotel room as seen through two windows in a red-brick wall. Over one window a caption appears as if etched in concrete: “It was in this room that the world’s first paintings for the hearing impaired came into being.” Books are visible on the shelves, like clues: Flying Saucers, Electromagnetism, The Unbeatable Bruce Lee, How to Make Money, Crossword Puzzles.

Almost all of Wong’s paintings have fake wood-grain frames painted on the edges of the canvas. Almost all of them have some brick surface: a tenement ruin as subject, or a brick wall as a framing device or a backdrop. White Slavery, 1982–84, is a tough mixed media piece, a fake-framed and -bricked canvas containing a recess in which are placed white porcelain models of a sink, tub, and toilet. Above these is a fake-framed blackboard on which are scrawled the names of famous Lower East Side heroin brands: Good & Plenty, Black Sunday, Colt 45, Nova, 99X, Mad, Toilet, Executioner, White Horse, People’s Choice, Red Devil, Knockout, No Name, and many more.

A similarly constructed piece features a triptych of three tenement shells beneath the blackboard, and in the recessed box, behind cracked glass, a notebook opened to a sketch of Pedro Rodriguez. On the blackboard is written, “Give me $6 . . . give me $6 or I’ll kill you . . . give me $6 or ill burn down your building . . . give me $6 or I’ll slash your paintings . . . give me $6 and you can touch me all over I won’t tell nobody . . . I’m sick man. I’m going to die . . . I only got $4 and I need $10 to cop.”

Several paintings are exquisite renderings of Lower East Side rubble landmarks, hulks, ruins, burned-out shells. Stripped Trans Am at Avenue C and 5th Street, 1984, is an Alphabet City icon. Two tenement shells, windows blackened by fire, stand against a molten mud sky and blacked-out skyline, a negative skyline. The skeletal car is a microcosm of ruined hope and value. The sign language in the sky has steely cuffs now.

These paintings are not illustrations of despair or simple glamour shots of exotic wreckage. These are real life; beauty exists in a hole. “It’s Not What You Think.” “What Is It Then?”, 1984, shows young lovers beneath a brick ruin in a yard of trash and rubble, abstract slashes of concrete and steel, all under a rusted-out sky. They are dwarfed by the scale but they are focused on by the composition and the light. They are alive, loving, and beautiful. They have a misty gold aura about them; they radiate a pure ecstasy. They appear again in War and the Rumors of War, 1983, again small against a tall ruin with blocked-up windows, but some glass remains shining gold from an out-of-frame sun. The same lovers, Sharp and Dottie, 1984, are more passionate in their embrace this time, perhaps because of the rumors compressing time. They transform an ending into a beginning.

These are not horror paintings. They are loving paintings, paintings with a sense of humor. They are elaborate, tough, witty, and beautiful. They speak the unhearable and show the invisible.

Glenn O’Brien