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Cantonese Cowboy

Martin Wong, Malicious Mischief
Camden Arts Centre

MARTIN WONG (1946–1999) is a free spirit, and Malicious Mischief is peculiar in the good sense; peculiar to something, rather than weird. What he is peculiar to is the queer and immigrant scenes of west and east coast America, with a sort of controlled playfulness. And boy could he paint. 

Some of the figures can seem like Robert Crumb cartoons, and then you see a foreshortened body like one of Michelangelo’s. There’s homage to Peter Blake’s detritus in shop windows. Some clean line painting, and then a scumble of oil paint as delicious as Rembrandt or Bacon. 

But Wong is his own man and paints human life struggling against decay in a money-obsessed America. His textured walls, brickwork and gates are full of the fading hope of people who might have seen America as a second chance, rather than an opportunity for money making. 

Raised in San Francisco in the free love utopianism of 1970s California, this son of Chinese heritage studied ceramics at Humboldt state university. He was also was a spiritual surfer – looking into ancient spiritual Hindu texts, Chinese Taoism, Christianity, and the symbols (not symbolism) all find their way into his painting. 

Too hot for the “cool” east coast he is neither intellectual nor cerebral enough for the CIA-backed American abstraction, yet he goes there, becoming friends with the fine Nuyorican poet Miguel Pinero. Pinero referred to “Rockerfella’s ghettoside” which Wong later updated to Reagan’s ghettoside as places were burned or left to rot so owners could collect insurance money and move in the developers.

Fierce gentrification – for the gentry often have fierce methodology behind them. As the later reality of urban New York tightened its grip, so crime, drugs, prison and the perseverance of immigrant and queer communities fired Wong’s imagination.  

“Taking it down to street level this time,” writes Wong. “I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict and confinement that has us all bound together in this life without the possibility of parole. By whatever chains of desire, be they financial, chemical or karmic..”

So this is painting as entrancing rather than enchanting and straight from the spiritual playbooks. Whether he got to the Communist Manifesto we’ll never know. I suspect that if he had he would have been in jail far sooner than his arrests for queer or other subversive behaviours. 

Things gradually disintegrate in Martin Wong’s art, but he finds the joy in it. Whether this is this political or just a voyeuristic painter getting off on it doesn’t matter. The artist’s job is to record and feed it back to us, so we can do something about it. It seems to say life is worth living, so get on and live it. If you get put behind bars, go look at the inside of them. 

Wong had a traditional narrative take on painting and combined it with his love for texture, Chinese calligraphy, graffiti, hippie performance and ceramics, mixing it into visceral visions of the world around him. If indeed he is part of a movement it is surely with Basquiat, but Wong didn’t become fashionable and not many today have heard of him. Had Andy Warhol, one wonders? 

I hadn’t until invited to review the show, which made it an interesting experience as I had no previous art fug or filter in which to place him. I came to him raw – researching him afterwards, with no pre-conceived ideas. 

On walking through the door at Camden Arts Centre I thought hmm, A-level art circa 1968 (when I did it) but the work has warmth and a slow burn. I wasn’t blown away by it but I was certainly sucked in. I too often stand and stare at a crumbling wall and find its beauty and take a photo.  Ah – the romance of it all – a decrepit wall and a loaded brush. 

Wong started getting into trouble with the law, leading to a series of prison paintings filled with piled up bodies on bunks and eyes peeking out from behind bars. But there’s still sex and desire; he subverts power dynamics, twisting relationships of violence and surveillance to find an outlet for desire. Hilariously, he captions a painting of firemen saying he was attracted by the smoky smell of their sexy uniforms – but lament that they went home, washed and splashed themselves with Old Spice aftershave – turning him off. 

In the last paintings he returns to San Francisco, exploring Chinatown as an American construction: his own take on cultural appropriation, and not unlike the firemen smelling of Old Spice. 

Wong died in 1999 from an Aids-related illness. 

Runs until September 17, admission free. Info: