Martin Wong’s retrospective Human Instamatic, currently on at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, begins in quaint Humboldt County, California. It was here that the artist spent his free-spirited teenage and early 20s “Eureka Years” (so-named after the city of Eureka) from 1964 to 1978, and where he painted “Portrait of Bill McWhorter in Convertible with Boy and Dog” (1975): a wide, warm-toned, three-panel canvas featuring a hatted McWhorter at the steering wheel.
This painting opens the exhibition, and it’s apt in two ways. As a prologue to the rest of the show, the car racing towards a setting yolky sun signals Wong’s approaching transformation from West Coast beatnik portraitist — which led to the self-moniker that supplies the exhibition’s title — to influential figure in New York’s late ’80s and early ’90s art scene. The painting also introduces a motif that repeats and manifests in Wong’s work, of looking outwards. As an artist, Wong was interested in communicating with and glamorizing the underdog and in intimate ethnographic interpretations of the places he lived. The result is a fantastic yet sophisticated form of observation that begins with him in the passenger seat.
Through the sensitive curation of the Bronx Museum’s Director of Curatorial and Education Programs Antonio Sergio Bessa and Adjunct Curator Yasmin Ramírez, Human Instamatic pays tribute not just to Wong’s work but to his life as well. The exhibition chronologically tracks Wong’s speedy exit from California and his move to the Lower East Side, where he starting working as a night porter at South Street’s Meyer’s Hotel in 1978. The irregularity and loneliness of the job led Wong to sympathize with those who struggled to communicate, specifically the deaf and mute, and to identify with the trope of the mad artist tortured by inner voices.
Wong’s interpretations of American Sign Language are first seen in the painting “Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder” (1980), which features his by-now iconic hands that finger-spell the title. Wong was inspired by real-life tabloid coverage of the serial killer Son of Sam, but the use of signing also references gang signals or secret codes for the homosexual community (Wong himself was gay). The trompe l’oeil painting “My Secret World, 1978-1981” (1984), inspired by van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles” (1888), presents his state of mind in those early days, featuring his own works in progress, eight-balls and dice, and an array of books with generic titles such as ‘Pro Hockey’ and ‘Flying Saucers.’ Having shed his halcyon San Francisco lifestyle, where one of his jobs had been to design posters for gay theater troupe The Cockettes, Wong began to consider where and what his new community was.
He found that community in the Loisaida (the Spanglish name for parts of the East Village and Lower East Side formerly dominated by Black and Puerto Rican immigrants), an area that greatly informed his work. Soon after moving into 181 Ridge Street, Wong met the Puerto Rican poet Miguel Piñero (who was briefly his lover) and painted “Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero)” (1982–84). The work is a hyperrealistic representation of a basketball court tagged with graffiti by close friend Little Ivan, and features Piñero’s lively verses across the top border, his “toasting” style a precursor to the rap genre: “Knocked Out Lighting, Drowned A Drop of Water, Put Handcuff on the Wind, Lock Thunder in Jail, Slapped Jesus in the Face and Ran Satan Out of Hell.” Wong responds on canvas with an equally lively summation of his artistic ambitions in sign language and, across the bottom border, a doubling of his terms of communication with anybody who was listening: “It’s the real deal Neal / I’m gonna rock your world, make your planets twirl, ain’t no wack attack.”
With this painting, Wong essentially inscribed himself into overlapping cultural tribes: the Nuyorican Movement of Puerto Rican writers, musicians, and artists, of which Pinero was a key member, and the nascent Lower East Side graffiti scene that consisted of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Lee Quiñones, and Christopher “Daze” Ellis, among others. Wong collected the works of all these artists.
The Loisaida paintings also reveal Wong’s obsessions as he observed his new neighborhood: with firemen, with constellations and their mappings in the skies, and with bricks. His building paintings here are luminous metaphors, thickly rendered to mirror the strength of the social foundations he saw in local tenement houses facing gentrification. His series of firemen is risqué, titillating — although some of the subjects are putting out fires, most recline or pose like Ancient Greek deities, semi-clothed in workmen’s uniforms rather than flowing robes. In some paintings, bright asterisms hint at Wong’s growing interest in spirituality and imagined worlds — for example, “Everything Must Go” (1983) sees stars juxtaposed with rubble and destruction, merging the reality of impending gentrification with fantastical constellations not visible to the naked eye.
The penultimate rooms of Human Instamatic continue to mine Wong’s studied observations of both his environment and his imagination. A section titled “The Carceral City” places side by side Wong’s paintings of shuttered shop fronts and of prison life, seen vicariously through Piñero, who served time between 1972 and 1973. In these depictions of incarceration, Wong creates a far-fetched mise-en-scène in which his male subjects are sculpted and glamorous, each one a character in a play that is jail. These scenes are bracketed by broken or smashed walls through which we view the lives of the incarcerated, though we end up feeling less like voyeurs and more like visitors in Wong’s mind. In contrast, the shop-front paintings are mysteriously obfuscated — layers upon layers of closed walls, bars and barricades revealing little within. This section communicates Wong’s sense of being both an insider and outsider, and in the middle of the gallery, a series of paintings depicting simply bricks and constellations exaggerates this tension. What could be more closed than a brick wall, and what could be open than a scattering of stars in an infinite sky?
Wong’s final series painted in New York show his fetishized, hallucinogenic visions of Manhattan’s and San Francisco’s Chinatowns. In these works, he faces his own Chinese-American identity with nightmarish, fluorescent blue backgrounds and characters like Bruce Lee, manic Himalayan ghouls, and Wong himself, wearing a cowboy hat in “Self-Portrait” (1993), where he appears as if in a trance. The only other self-portraits in the exhibition are in one of the two small rooms that feature archival letters, photographs, and sketches donated by Flora Wong, the artist’s mother. There are seven portraits in this tiny room, and they were all made during the ’60s, when Wong still lived in San Francisco.
The way he portrayed himself is telling. In the earlier works, Wong painted his eyes as black pits; with each consecutive portrait, more and more of the sclera become visible. By the 1993 “Self-Portrait,” Wong had matured stylistically — the whites around his pupils are bright and visible — but he still grappled with issues of identity issues, as evidenced by the folk renderings and lack of dimensionality in the Chinatown series. I saw an expression of alarm in those eyes, as he looks off to the side, away from the viewer. He appears haunted. What he’s looking at, and what he’s possibly ruminating on, might be apparent in the room just opposite this canvas, the very last of the show.
Here, we are privy to the artist’s final thoughts before being devastatingly cut off from them. Wong is back in San Francisco, living out his last days in his mother’s house and surrounded by an overgrown botanical garden and his own sculptures from his teen years. He would soon die of an AIDS-related illness in 1999, at just 53 years old.
Although this section is titled “Late Works,” there are only three small canvasses, all of them much humbler in size than anything else in the exhibition. Monochromatic and fey, they show amoebic organisms drawn from real life; they are startlingly clear and devoid of the bricks and barriers that dictated his previous work. Wong is no longer just in the passenger seat; it’s as if, by looking outwards for many years, he learned how to face inwards, and what came out on the canvas was a kinetic sense of possibility, a culmination of the energy in the works that came before.
Martin Wong: Human Instamatic continues at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1040 Grand Concourse, the Bronx) through February 14, 2016.