Martin Wong Created Eclectic, Gritty, Mythic Queer Art
by Hank Trout
Walking through the exhibit “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, I often felt transported to the Lower East Side of New York City some thirty years ago: crumbling tenements, rubble-blocked streets, dangerous-looking street toughs. At other times, the work whisked me to a mythical fantasy Chinatown or locked me in a dark prison cell. I laughed at some of the paintings—or should I say, along with some of the paintings—but not nearly as often as I was moved to tears by others. Such is the power and the range of Wong’s mesmerizing paintings.
Born in 1946 in Portland, Oregon, Martin Wong grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He earned a BA in ceramics at Humboldt State College in 1968. He moved to Eureka, California, where he worked as a street artist, drawing quick-sketch portraits—hence his self-moniker, “Human Instamatic.” Soon, he created set designs for the radical queer theatrical companies Angels of Light and the outrageous, (in)famous Cockettes. At age thirty he decided to become a painter and embarked upon self-education, studying technical painting manuals. His early paintings show the influence of the “Lowbrow Movement” in California and underground comics art, but he soon transcended both.
In 1978 Wong moved to New York City, landing at the gritty Meyer’s Hotel. Knowing no one in the city, feeling extremely alone and isolated, he developed an affinity for the deaf, leading to his learning and using ASL signs in many of his paintings and earning him a commission from the city to create traffic signs in ASL. He first exhibited his paintings at gallery NO El Rio. At the opening, he met Miguel (“Mikey”) Piñero, the Puerto Rican poet and writer of the award-winning play Short Eyes. He and Piñero began collaborating; Wong painted several portraits of Piñero [see Miguel Piñero (1990)] and incorporated Piñero’s poetry into his paintings, reminiscent of traditional Chinese artists’ combining of images and words, but in a style that is purely his.
Through Piñero, Wong met and came to identify with African-Americans and Latinos who populated the bohemian Lower East Side. They not only populate his paintings but also influenced his appearance. Self Portrait (1993) is a complex image: Wong with Fu Manchu mustache, a cowboy shirt decorated with Chinese dragons, a cowboy hat with a thorny-crowned Christ on its crown, all haloed in gold with a multitude of dragon faces sneering in the background. Disparate cultures that might have clashed—Puerto Rican, Chinese, Christian—meld instead. Other paintings feature Latino and African American skateboarders, motorcyclists, and street thugs.
Wong became familiar through Piñero with jails and prison cells. Reckless depicts a young Latino man lying in his prison cell bed, his torso and feet exposed, his groin and hands covered by the bedsheet (is he “recklessly” pleasuring himself?). The flesh tones of the prisoner’s body stand out against the bleak black-gray-white of the prison cell. The Annunciation According to Mikey Piñero (Cupcake and Paco) depicts two prisoners in a cell, Cupcake about to exit the cell, Paco kneeling on one knee before him—proposing? or perhaps blessing Cupcake? Most haunting is the almost-not-there man beyond the cell’s bars, perhaps a guard waiting to escort Cupcake—to freedom or to something else? As in Reckless, Wong renders the two men in warm brown tones, starkly contrasted with the stark palate of the jail cell, emphasizing their humanity.
For this viewer, the most solemnly affecting of Wong’s prison paintings is the elegiac Penitentiary Fox, painted after Piñero’s death from cirrhosis in 1988. In the foreground at the bottom is a loving portrait of Piñero, his eyes closed in death, “Mikey Piñero 1946–1988” written above his head, turning the painting into a kind of headstone for the poet. Behind Piñero, we see the prison gate, guards walking along the top of the prison wall, in the towers that frame the prison gate. Beyond, we see, in what appears to be a hole ripped in the prison wall as if it were paper, seven dark-skinned inmates and two prison guards. Each figure is named, as the painting reads, “Based on Reminiscences by James Rivera.” Still further behind these inmates and guards, we see a three-tiered cell block, inmates milling about, chatting, leaning on the cell block railings, mopping the floor. I must admit, Penitentiary Fox made my eyes water. It’s difficult to describe the emotions stirred by the contrast between the gentle portrait of Piñero in the foreground, rendered with such obvious, palpable love, and the stark prison behind him. I cried for Piñero, for the inmates.
Another of Wong’s frequent subjects is firemen. Fascinated by firemen ever since his parents took a photo of him at age six sitting atop a San Francisco fire truck, childhood fascination evolved into erotic fetish in adult life. Wong kept a NYFD uniform in his apartment and often asked friends to don it and model for him. Fireman, however, from 1990, appears to be a self-portrait of Wong in NYFD uniform; the technique anticipates Self Portrait (1993). Big Heat depicts a tall dilapidated tenement; in the foreground two uniformed firemen embrace and kiss. My Fire Guy lovingly depicts a Latino fireman lying abed, fully uniformed, asleep, cuddling a puppy.
My favorite of the fireman paintings is I Really Like the Way Firemen Smell, a small, funny black and gray canvas that depicts just the silhouette of a fireman in his hat in the lower foreground. Written around the silhouette, I really like the way firemen smell when they get off work. It’s like hickory smoked rubber and B.O. After he showers and throws on the Old Spice, I always lose interest. He thinks I’m only into his uniform. In reality, I’m only into him for the smell. One has to admire an artist who can make light of his own fetishes!
The Lower East Side became not only Wong’s home but also his most frequent subject. Using a palette reminiscent of his work in ceramics—earthy reds, ochers, umbers, burnt sienna—Wong painted the tenements with great affection, each brick painted in exacting detail, with almost photographic realism. Of the many tenement building paintings, for me the most exquisite is Rapture (1988). The painting is a triptych, a tenement wall contained in three oval wooden frames, each brick rendered in almost supernatural detail. The painting could easily portray three saints as well as a brick wall, it achieves that level of somber religiosity.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1994, Wong returned to San Francisco to live with his parents. Despite failing health, he continued to paint, including brightly colored fantasies of Chinatown’s buildings and famous New Year’s Parade. Toward the end of his life, he turned his eye instead to the cacti and succulents in his mother’s garden, planted in ceramic pots he had made. Sadly beautiful in their stark, somber black-and-white palette, and coming as they do at the end of Wong’s career, they stand alone in glaring contrast to the vibrant, colorful, life-affirming paintings that preceded. The word “elegiac” comes to mind again. I never would have guessed that a still-life painting of a cactus could move me to tears, but….
Although the HAART “cocktails” became available in 1996, Wong was one of those unfortunates whom the cocktails failed. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1999. His legacy lives on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and of course BAMPFA. And now, in this writer’s heart as well.
“Martin Wong : Human Instamatic” runs through December 10, 2017, at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center Street, Berkeley CA 94720; (510) 642-0808; www.bampfa.org. The exhibit was organized by the Bronx Museum of the Arts; www.bronxmuseum.org.
Hank Trout is an Editor at Large for A&U.