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Prisoners, cruising and Bruce Lee: how the world caught up with artist Martin Wong

There’s a painting on show at the new Martin Wong retrospective that demands closer inspection. At first, the 1988 piece entitled Heaven depicts a circular wall, notable for the immaculate detailing on the brickwork. But gaze closer and you see a small black hole in the middle of the painting, a detail that gives the work a loaded queer subtext.

This is typical of the hidden depths to Wong’s work. A child of Chinese immigrants to America, his work explored and celebrated racial and queer identity, gleefully merged cross-cultural references and showcased Wong’s multilingual skills, including references to sign language. He has not always been easy to decode. Martin Clark, director of the Camden Art Centre, admits that there’s a certain cache that comes from being able to properly understand Wong’s work: “If you know, you know,” he says.

It’s taken a long time for people to be able to know Wong and his work. According to Clark it was the artists around him in New York, in particular the graffiti art community with which he was close, who were “holding the torch” prior to 2016, when the Bronx Museum staged a retrospective that began to shine a light on Wong’s art. Malicious Mischief, the current retrospective showing in London and a surprise hit of the summer, is the first extensive display of Wong’s work outside of the United States.

Why has it taken people so long to catch up? Clark believes the kind of work Wong was making, both in terms of the issues and the aesthetics, was out of favour during his lifetime (Wong died in 1999 from an Aids-related illness, five years after being diagnosed with HIV). “Figurative painting and identity politics was at the bottom of the agenda in a lot of ways,” says Clark.

Born in 1946, Wong grew up in Chinatown in San Francisco, a place he would return to at the end of his life to be under his parents’ care. For decades, from the late 1960s until his death, Wong’s work captured images of a changing world, filtered through a kaleidoscopic, cross-cultural vision. Whether in the intricate detail and apocalyptic landscape of Stripped Trans Am at Ave C and 5th Street (1984) that shows a vision of New York being left behind, or the intimacy of Prison Bunk Beds (1988-91), Wong creates images that at once feel like another planet, yet also appear politically prophetic.

Clark says that Wong was “an outsider in all of the communities that he was in,” whether that was hippies and queer performance groups in San Francisco, or the Puerto Rican community that he was involved with once he moved to the east coast.

Wendy Olsoff, co-founder of PPOW gallery in New York, knew and worked with Wong. She says that there’s an increasing “hunger” for his work now. When it comes to the political edge of his paintings – images of prisoners, police officers, and a rapidly gentrifying Lower East Side – Olsoff says that “at the time, we didn’t see it … his imagery was layered in such a way, that we didn’t have the skills to see what he was saying.”

Wong’s work captures the contradictions and uncertainties of identity; both Clark and Olsoff mention the importance of Wong’s relationship with his parents, and what it meant for him to be a child of immigrants. As Clark says “America was all he knew; he was surrounded by a history and culture that was him, but that he was slightly outside of again.” Wong grapples with these cultural images in paintings like Bruce Lee in the Afterworld (1991), in which the film star is painted blue, surrounded by spirits, and even the ghostly image of Daffy Duck, with Wong’s cultural and historical worlds coming together. This is echoed in the visual language of his final painting, Did I Ever Have a Chance? (1999). Painted while Wong was hospitalised, using the same blue figuration and background as Bruce Lee, he transforms Patty Hearst into Kali, Hindu goddess of death and time.

In describing Wong’s impact and legacy, Clark says that we now “have a language to think and talk these things through, and I think that wasn’t necessarily the case when he was making the work.” Osloff says that it’s “taken decades, and change, for people to see everything that’s there in the painting.”

Both Olsoff and Clark emphasise the ways in which Wong used multiple languages – the cruising subtext of Heaven, the constellations in his landscapes, and his Painting for the Hearing Impaired series – in order to create a unique, deeply personal language of his own. Osloff says that the complexity and layers mean “you can have your own relationship” to Wong’s art, there is resonance and power in the fact that there’s no singular, simple way of reading either the art or the artist. We can only be grateful that we’ve finally found a way to speak the language of Martin Wong.

Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief is at Camden Art Centre, London, until 17 September