New York

Martin Wong

Exit Art

So often have the discarded, lowly, kitsch, and despised artifacts of our daily lives been dredged up by artists to shock, disturb, amuse, or contradict our sensibilities that it’s easy to forget a rarer spirit of esthetic and political passion that is wholly unlike the prominent strategies of camp, transgressive, or political art. In the flood of media-fried pop, politicized urban expression, and confrontational excess that was rapidly consumed in New York at the outset of this decade under the moniker of East Village art, it was maybe inevitable that the delicacies of a few artists, such as Martin Wong, would be lost. There is in Wong’s paintings a level of vaguely discernible ambiguity that lends his work quite readily to misunderstanding. Laced internally with a pathology of sensual ambivalence, his obsessively rendered studies of real-life characters and places are secret vehicles of personal fantasy confined within the matter-of-fact.

Wong’s paintings are compositionally and narratively bound to naturalism. They share that movement’s ideological topicality and eroticism of the poor. The driving concerns and the emotional investments of the artist lie just below the surface. Here are paintings of decaying, desolate cityscapes, of pent-up souls framed by their tenement windows or the bars of a jail cell, of hand signals for those who cannot hear, of constellation charts drawn across an impenetrably black sky that weighs down upon the ragged geometry of tenements, of firemen, policemen, and street-tough youths all chained to their sins. The artist’s vision is not one of hopelessness; it is, rather, a portrait of hope itself.

Wong gives us an existential frame (a lonely window, an endless brick wall, the void of night) through which one may never pass physically but through which desire may always travel. To enter Wong’s hermetic world one cannot stop at the dead ends. One can float across its void as if it were the ocean between what is and what is not. Wong’s despair resonates with a sensitive nostalgia, from the melancholia of loss in his closed storefronts to the dreamlike fertility of meditational abstraction in his lyrical passages of richly painted bricks. His scenarios of doomed homoerotic love or cornered primal instincts make painful confession of more personal kinds of repression and loneliness.

These paintings are invisibly charged on a multitude of levels, addressing a host of personal, poetic, and social concerns in a murky humanist glow of compassion and self-reflexive identification. As the post-Modernist agenda continues to absorb the marginal and low sectors from the sphere of our stratified cultural condition, it is important to recognize and admire in artists such as Wong that such a treatment need not be, and should not be, as condescending and parasitical as the voyeuristic hordes of slumming anthropologists have made it. Poverty, of whatever sort one may be speaking, is not a singularity of status but a universe unto itself, deeply nuanced with individual personalities and etched in detail by the scars of a most inhuman punishment.

Carlo McCormick