In one painting, prisoners are stacked on steely bunks. In another, a Latin American couple clutch hands, seeming to glow against a backdrop of red tenement bricks. Across so many paintings, these bricks – a catch-all symbol for New York’s cityscape, that often make it seem like Wong’s paintings have been pulled right off a building; that they don’t belong in a gallery at all but back in the streets, alongside the graffiti art Wong loved and compulsively collected. Yet, despite his ongoing artistic obsession with the back alleys and shop fronts of a dilapidated New York City on the cusp of gentrification, Wong was not just a political painter of the neighbourhood. Rather, his paintings blend social realism with a cosmic symbology.
Come Over Here Rockface
Free love and prison bars. Astrology and magic eight-balls. San Francisco’s Chinatown and Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In Malicious Mischief at Camden Arts Centre, it often feels like Martin Wong is bridging what should be an impossible gap – drawing things together that convention suggests should be opposed. But Wong was never one for convention. From his time in an acid drag free theatre group in California, to years spent alongside graffiti artists, Puerto Rican poets and ex-con playwrights in New York, Wong was always drawn to the radical, the free-spirited, and the wayward. On both coasts, he captured the underbelly of American society – in all its queer resistance and its precarity; defiant subversion and oppression by a violent state.
"drawn to the radical, the free-spirited, and the wayward"
Moving from room to room in Camden Art Centre’s expansive and intoxicating exhibition, you witness Wong’s distinctive visual language evolving – one made up of codes and signs that gesture outwards, and speak to secret, shared languages of the marginalised. In one early piece, Beat-esque prose poetry is rendered in bold inky script on long scrolls, nodding to both contemporary West Coast counterculture and traditional Chinese calligraphy. Later, an interest in visual tropes of ‘chance’ and ‘destiny’ led to a new coda – one ruled by dice and flaming magic eight balls.
"Eat your heart out Oscar Wilde"
As the 70s slid into the 80s, Wong was working as a night porter in a New York hotel in exchange for free lodging, and devoured books on astrology, psychology, mythology, and male erotica. One painting, titled My Secret World, offers a glimpse into Wong’s lodgings and depicts a stack of books, their titles clearly legible on the spines: Modern Magic; Field Guide to Sea Shells, China; Electromagnetism; Fishing for Boys. The American Sign Language fingerspelling alphabet becomes a recurring element of Wong’s work. And then, for every intricately rendered red brick, there is also a constellation picked out in gold. One painting in the exhibition’s final room mixes these two signature styles with typically homoerotic humour: Wong’s red bricks form a giant phallus, with Orion and Lepus glistening along one side of the shaft. Eat your heart out Oscar Wilde, Wong really was an artist of “the gutter”, who was also looking at the stars.
More than anything then, Malicious Mischief presents an artist always looking in multiple directions at once – one eye trained on the contemporary conditions in which he lived, and the other looking beyond, to a fantastical, transcendental realm. Perhaps this sense of being constantly pulled in different directions stemmed from his experience as a Chinese-American artist – one who drew heavily on Chinese iconography, was inspired by Asian mysticism and painted richly textured, psychedelic and nostalgic depictions of San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he had been raised as a child, yet one who was also criticised by other Asian-American artists for Orientalism, as if he was looking at his own culture and heritage with a Western gaze. Or, perhaps it has more to do with being a queer man in a time of state-sanctioned homophobia, in a city ravaged by the AIDS epidemic more than any other US city (Wong himself would die prematurely, in 1999, from an AIDS-related illness). Or, perhaps, it is the essential state of the artist to be somehow split – trying to capture the present as it rushes past, while also creating works that stand the test of time. Being both in the world and a chronicler of it.
"the outsider wandering the edges"
Was Wong a visionary? He certainly felt himself to be on the margins looking on, never fully belonging. In California, he described himself as ‘the outsider wandering the edges’. In New York, he apparently felt like a ‘tourist’. This wasn’t only an internal feeling of alienation either – Miguel Piñero, a playwright and poet who was a close friend of Wong’s, supposedly couldn’t shake the sense that Wong was an ‘investigative reporter’. Yet, these descriptions fail to capture Wong’s playfulness, and how much of his work hovers between social critique and big jokes. Even that title “Malicious Mischief” has a double meaning. In legal terminology, it is the act or offence of intentionally damaging or destroying another's property. Vandalism, in other words, such as graffiti. But also, in Wong’s hands, the wilful and malicious destruction wreaked on the marginalised by the state – on their property and on their bodies. At the show’s midpoint, adding another twist, is the titular painting “Malicious Mischief” – a relatively small work from 1991 of a moustachioed, muscled prison officer, one hand fumbling around his crotch. There is a clear and bold eroticism to the work, like a painterly Tom of Finland illustration. It’s funny and serious at the same time; fetishy and kitschy; a work of satire and of resistance. Similarly, in a nearby work, titled Come Over Here Rockface, another beefy, white prison officer stands, arms folded, eyeballing a black prisoner as he lowers his pants behind bars. Gold script at the top of the frame completes the title: COME OVER HERE ROCKFACE AND SUCK MY DICK.
"a subversive and idiosyncratic painter of myth and urban history"
There are a few carefully curated vitrines scattered throughout the show, full of sketches and letters and one small handmade booklet evocatively titled ‘Das Puke Book’. In one, there is a preparatory sketch for a painting, all fast motion lines and scribbled ink. In the top corner, Wong has sketched out some American Sign Language fingerspelling symbols in such a way that they look like a city’s skyline. Above, a crudely drawn magic eight ball looms like a vast dying planet, and underneath Wong has written, in his go-to all caps, “if you can’t make history, then make it up,” and then “paintings are the lottery tickets of the over privileged”. Irreverence, make-believe, and social critique. Dubbing himself the ‘Cantonese Cowboy’, Wong is a realist and a fantasist par excellence. Maybe that does make him a visionary. It certainly makes him a subversive and idiosyncratic painter of myth and urban history; mysticism and heroin; carving out new frontiers from red tenement bricks to dicks.
By Eloise Hendy