New York

Martin Wong

Semaphore East

Martin Wong’s exhibition in 1984 was dominated by the landscape of Manhattan’s Lower East Side: abandoned buildings, their brickwork distorting out-of-square, their windows vacant; twisted wire, the skeletal remains of cars. People were small details. In Wong’s most recent paintings, however, the human figure is front and center. Wong’s brickscapes have become a backdrop, but they still have meaning. Their angles seem to map out images, like the constellations Wong outlines in his paintings. But Wong’s people are beginning to dominate their stars rather than being ruled by them; they are champions and contenders: poet Miguel Pinero, prizefighters, a hearty street kid. Hot Wheels, 1984–85, portrays a boy on his bicycle. His face is half hidden under his New York Yankees cap; what is visible is tough but sensitive. His sneakered feet are up on his high-rise handlebars, indicating that he is a stuntman whose entire life, perhaps, is a balancing act. From his rolling perch in front of a forbidding wall of contorted brickwork, he looks like a stern junior knight before a decadent enemy’s citadel.

When I saw the painting Mitosis, 1985, I didn’t know what the title word meant, but I wrote in my notes, “two boxers: one creature” Later, I looked up the word: “mitosis: ordinary cell division, [by which the cell] divides longitudinally into two parts, each having a set of chromosomes similar to the original cell” The boxers are locked in struggle in front of a hurricane-fence gate; the gate is open, but behind it is another gate that is closed. Wong’s earlier work was sharply detailed; here, the fighters in their reddened gloves grapple in a mist of sweat and imagination. It is like George Bellows’ famous boxing picture Stag at Sharkey’s, 1909, but very many rounds and several generations later. In Bellows’ painting the fighters struggle to separate; in Mitosis they hold each other up. They may be punch-drunk, but their bodies are still proud.

My favorite of the paintings is atypically bright and brickless. Lock-Up, 1985, shows the prisoner in cell C76. The prisoner, a young man of color, is asleep on his cot, perfectly tucked in; on the wall behind him are cut-outs of the porno girls of his dreams. His face is noble, and there is something radiant about the order of the cell, even though the tones are all institutional greens and grays and off-whites that will never be really clean. The single cigarette on his night table is parallel to the cot; his shoes, perfectly perpendicular to it. A razor blade rests in the bristles of his toothbrush. It is the compulsive neatness of the military or of the sane man doing time. Almost centered in the painting is the keyhole in the bars of the cell, which occupy the extreme foreground. The bars are like the “fourth wall” of the theater, the imaginary plane that keeps the actor in and the audience out.

There was an Ashcan School, and now it looks like there is a “trashcan” school. It is the same city, but today there are more ruins and more unrest; where there were ashcans, today there are dumpsters. The people are a new, combative breed, and the victors among the victims are what Wong’s paintings are all about.

Glenn O'Brien