The central room of Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief is devoted to Wong’s series of wonderfully grim New York façades: life-sized trompe l’oeil pictures of shuttered gates and padlocked storefronts. Only a handful of these have been obtained for the current show, but like many of the canvases, they seem to resonate with a spiritual sombreness. Wong was fascinated by fortune; a Magic 8 Ball and dice appear repeatedly in his work, as do golden star constellations, mapped out across the moody night skies of his paintings.
Surprisingly, this is the first extensive exhibition outside the US for Wong, who died in 1999 from AIDS-related illness. The son of American-born Chinese parents, he grew up amid the hippy euphoria of 1960s San Francisco before moving to New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 1970s, where he produced deeply poetic scenes of urban realism drawing on both his Chinese ancestry and his interest in graffiti.
Bricks were the pixels of Wong’s urban cosmos, a colour palette composed of dark red clay and gold mortar
In 1984, while living and working in a NYC hotel room, he painted My Secret World, 1978-1981. Here Wong’s bedroom – his art on the wall, his books and leather pouch with sharpened pencils – is seen from outside, looking in. It is an extraordinary painting, flat and inscrutable but trembling with emotional longing. Isolation haunts all Wong’s New York canvases.
Many are filled with meticulously composed bricks, as though the artist were searching for order amidst the city’s trash-filled streets. Bricks were the pixels of Wong’s urban cosmos, a colour palette composed of dark red clay and gold mortar. We see a brick Statue of Liberty, a vast eye-like wall and even – perhaps inevitably – a giant brick cock.
After falling in love with a bad-boy Latino writer called Miguel Piñero, Wong began a series of erotic prison paintings fuelled by Piñero’s salacious stories of life behind bars. This is not the strongest section of the exhibition, with the prison guards too cartoony and the scenes too self-conscious.
The exhibition’s final part sees him exploring the energy of Chinatown and returning to Manhattan’s fortress-like tenements. Often these city hellscapes are transformed by a concealed moment of intimacy – a couple embracing, hidden away, oblivious to the chaos around them.
Near the end of his life, he returned to the West Coast and painted “Did I Ever Have a Chance?” across his final painting of Patty Hearst as Kali. Dreadfully ill and working from his hospital bed, it seemed spiritual solace finally eluded him. ★★★★★
- KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Auguststr. 69, Mitte, until 14.05.23. Get more information here.