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Martin Wong’s “Malicious Mischief”

KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin
February 25–March 14, 2023

In a 1988 catalog essay, the poet and critic John Yau sketched out the social dimension of Martin Wong’s painting and sculpture. A self-styled “representative of an economically oppressed urban class consisting largely of Blacks, Hispanics and Asians,” the American artist had been snubbed by curators and critics. A quarter-century after Wong’s death, this injustice has been corrected, and this Berlin retrospective of his antic, steamy, humane, and superlatively accessible take on Chinatown San Francisco and New York, from the 1970s to the ’90s, has been lauded. But there’s an anxiety buried in this enthusiasm. In depicting a disappeared America, Wong’s retrospective holds a mirror to the lost world which surrounds KW itself.

“Even now,” Wong wrote in a hand-calligraphed 1986 press release, “it’s like the moment in these paintings never existed.” His home cities—his subject—were being gentrified to oblivion. In 1984, New York Magazine wrote of Wong’s downtown Manhattan: “nowhere have the tensions and dramas of [gentrification] been more starkly displayed.” Set aside the differences between the cities and eras, and the same has recently been true of Mitte, the Berlin district in which KW is situated.

Nocturne at Ridge Street and Stanton (1987) shows an unpeopled but warm cityscape. A sooty brick wall holds the foreground, its windows plugged with cinder blocks. The composition is elsewhere packed with buildings which, leaning slightly and painted in infinitesimal brushstrokes, seem weirdly alive. Meanwhile, cartoon sign language emblems—a signature Wong motif—overlay a constellation in the sky. No Es Lo Que Has Pensado… (It’s Not What You Think…), from 1984, depicts a more explicit tenderness. Two people snuggle at the base of another scarred brick wall, in the hollow lot where another building once stood. The setting is New York, but could just as easily be 1990s Berlin.

Wong’s effective depiction of city life is powered by a compound spatial-pictorial-emotional effect that smashes through divisions between the felt, seen, and daydreamed. Packed into the picture plane with the dense physicality of clothing fastidiously slotted into a drawer, the objects in his scenes also tumble into interior architectural and psychological space. Voices (1981) pictures a white-painted but grimy book-packed bedroom; the titular word, inscribed on a window frame, evokes ghostly interior monologue. The most solemn series shown here consists of three large canvases, each featuring a different version of the metal gates that protect city storefronts at night. The blunt materiality of these doors summons chilly thoughts about how they separate those who profit from capitalism from those made desperate by it.

The rule of Wong’s mastery is proved by its exceptions. Weatherby’s (1974) shows a city street at night. Painted in billowy strokes, without cryptic details, surprising compositional tensions, or the supple density that embodies Wong’s best work, the piece stalls in predictable charm. Psychedelic Triptych (1988) is a neat but forgettable merger of graphic design and painting, featuring elongated and arching versions of his sign-language motif.

Clones of Bruce Lee (1981), on the other hand, crafts an idiosyncratic voice from the same signing hands. Here, they chatter across a night-black background, as if the cosmos were itself speaking. Like many of the paintings in this show—as well as several pencil sketches, graffiti blackbooks, and a black leather jacket painted by Wong and tagged by New York graffiti luminaries—Clones… was hung on a dark ochre-colored wall, that soaked the show in a theatrical atmosphere, verging on nostalgic kitsch. The iconic Tell my Troubles to the Eight Ball (Eureka) (1978–81) has a black-and-white pool ball floating in flame and smoke, rendered like Botticellian hair, across a constellation-crossed sky. Quirks such as this make the punchy image memorable. Four tiny dots rise from the flames like the tail of a cartoon thought bubble. The square painting is bordered with googly-eyed skulls, and the work’s tidily hand-printed title.

In a delicious flourish, Mi Vida Loca (1991) overlays horniness and gaudiness, as faux-gold ornamentation frames an erect red brick cock, rising from testicles, whose orbic perfection gives the eight ball a run for its money. Wong’s prison scenes roil in claustrophobic, swimming brushstrokes. In the bodies of inmates and in pinup posters, we see moments of loneliness, tenderness, and horniness. For Yau, Wong’s egalitarian politics spoke through his style: self-taught, maniacally detailed, and just to the cartoony side of realism. To believe in the political power of this work is, by logical progression, to assert that art should not only represent those dispossessed by gentrification, but also be a tool of self-articulation. These paintings clearly testify to the beauty of a disappeared world. The question is who, at this moment in time, that testament serves.