Transcendent Oneness: Martin Wong at KW

by Eva Szwarc // Apr. 11, 2023

Miniature bricks, American Sign Language (ASL), constellations and Magic 8 balls; these are just some of the symbols that accumulate in the sprawling world of Martin Wong. KW Institute for Contemporary Art presents the artist’s first comprehensive retrospective in Europe, ‘Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief,’ in which the seemingly incongruous are held together. Positioned chronologically across three decades, the exhibition moves from Wong’s early work produced in the counterculture scene of California to the urban landscapes of New York City.

‘Martin Wong – Malicious Mischief,’ installation view at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023 // Photo by Frank Sperling

The first section grants an intimate introduction to the early multi-media work of Wong during his time on the West Coast in the early 1970s. Burnt orange walls cast a warm cocoon around the artist’s early sculpture, calligraphy, photography and painting. Raised in San Francisco’s Chinatown by Chinese-American parents, Wong was informed by and sought out a rich spectrum of references. In his poetry scrolls, Chinese calligraphy reads as acid-trip writings, which oscillate between the dreamlike and the grotesque. In ‘Firefly Evening’ (1968), the “sewer goddess” transforms into “a tangled clot of garbage” and children become trapped beneath gutters or mirrors. In one image from a collection of polaroids, the artist’s room is decorated with religious iconography—a textile of the Last Supper hangs behind a framed print of Jesus’ resurrection—alongside half a dozen rubber ducks and Disney figurines. From his formative years, Wong embraces a world in which both the profane and sacred, utopias and nightmares, blend together.

Martin Wong: ‘My Secret World 1978—81,’ 1984, acrylic on canvas, 121,92 x 172,72 cm // Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York, © Martin Wong Foundation

Wong’s practice increasingly turned to painting that enters, in the first work created in New York, a thematic shift. Here, Wong embarks on his self-proclaimed “obsession” with miniature bricks which, painted in row after impenetrable row, create harsh environments and communicate the initial solitude Wong experienced. Other motifs do cross over; earlier cut outs of finger spellings derived from ASL are here treated again and again in paint. Through this repeated interrogation, the hands become more angular and stylised; in ‘Totem und Taboo’ (ca. 1989), they are outlined in gold, assuming a hieroglyphic sacredness. Wong explores the aesthetic potential of this code, an extension of his interest in how communities, often those relegated to the outskirts of society, speak and share.

‘Martin Wong – Malicious Mischief,’ installation view at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023 // Photo by Frank Sperling

Such affinity makes for rich artistic exchange in Wong’s later works in New York’s Lower East Side. Through the poet Miguel Piñero, Wong became close to the Nuyorican (a combination of “New York” and “Puerto Rican”) community. In collaborating work, Piñero’s poetry floats above red brick landscapes by Wong, directly invoking the realities of poverty, addiction and illness. Elsewhere, social commentary merges closely with fantasy reimagining. Wong’s prison scenes, for example, make up some of the most striking of the retrospective’s paintings. ‘Prison Bunk Beds’ (c. 1988-1992) takes a birds-eye perspective of a prison cell, entirely cast in metallic grey. The bunk beds rise in an infinity; the prisoner looks down through the holes of his bed to the prisoner below him, who looks down in turn. In one painting, a man sleeps in his cell beneath pin-ups of women; a single cigarette rests to his side. In another, a policeman slips his hand beneath his trousers. These scenes, originating from true accounts of Piñero and others, combine the everyday of prison life with the homoeroticism Wong envisions. There is a tension between the recognition of the dehumanising experience of prison, as shown in ‘Prison Bunk Beds,’ and the artist’s own voyeuristic treatment.

‘Martin Wong – Malicious Mischief,’ installation view at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin 2023 // Photo by Frank Sperling

Martin Wong: ‘Cell Door Slot,’ 1986, acrylic on canvas, 45,7 x 71,1 cm // Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W, New York, © Martin Wong Foundation

In the corners of the brick landscapes of the Lower East Side, a softer form of eroticism is present. In ‘Dottie and Sharp’ (1984), lovers embrace on a burnt out sofa beneath structures of red brick, interrupted only by cracks and plaster or black bricks where windows once were. The buildings behind them surge to the blood-red sky like fat watchtowers. Two firemen smile shoulder-to-shoulder in ‘Gemini’ (1985) against rows of estates beneath a constellation of stars. In these dilapidated streets facing aggressive gentrification, Wong locates the people—the lover, the anonymous workers—as the true legacy of a place.

Martin Wong: ‘Did I Ever Have a Chance,’ 1999, acrylic on canvas, 154,9 x 121,9 cm // Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York, © Martin Wong Foundation

Following his AIDS diagnosis in the 1990s, Wong moved between New York and San Francisco and continued to paint prolifically. The rich symbolism calls back to Wong’s earlier work in which the political and spiritual, the erotic and astrological, combine. In ‘Bruce Lee in the Afterworld’ (1991), Bruce Lee strikes against a backdrop of mystical Daffy Ducks, while in other paintings the Statue of Liberty and a phallic tower are rendered in miniature brick. In his final work, ‘Did I Ever Have a Chance?’ Wong painted Patty Hearst as Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and death. Rather than provoke or disrupt, the wide spectrum of references running through Wong’s work offer unity and transformation. There is a nonchalance rather than irreverence in this, perhaps a touch of mischief too; Wong invites the transcendent possibility for the oneness of things, for the cosmos to be found in disregarded places.

Exhibition Info

KW Institute for Contemporary Art

Martin Wong: ‘Malicious Mischief’
Exhibition: Feb. 25 – May 14, 2023
Auguststraße 69, 10117 Berlin, click here for map

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