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Art

Martin Wong’s Tender, Gritty Cityscapes Helped Me Appreciate My Hometown

Lisa Wong Macabasco
May 25, 2021 6:23PM

Martin Wong, La Vida, 1988. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P·P·O·W, New York.

When I think of the house that I grew up in, I think of the color brown. I think of the dark brown velvet couch (ideal for hiding stains, my mom would say) where we’d arrange all my dolls and stuffed animals for deranged family portraits. I think of the fuzzy chocolate-colored carpet where we once discovered a tiny mushroom growing amid the sopping dampness of San Francisco’s forever-foggy climes that would seep in through our uninsulated windows and doors. My dad still haunts the house in a puffy jacket and beanie. An airy, light-filled modernist white cube it was not.

Browns are also the dominant color throughout Martin Wong’s earthy canvases: rich umbers, crusty rusts, roasted siennas, and, frequently and copiously, freighted bricks, meticulously and individually rendered.

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Wong acutely observed New York’s Lower East Side in the 1980s as the place he called home. Where most would see just derelict and blight, Wong saw life. He found ample beauty in its graffiti, empty lots, and burned-out buildings. People and their communities were a primary interest of Wong’s, be they the tenements bordering his home that teemed with music and bustle, brawny men in prison, or the Chinatowns in New York and San Francisco, filled with fighting, kissing, laughing, and all manner of horsing around.

Growing up, I was a bit sheepish about where I lived. We didn’t have a spacious upper-middle-class house like many of my friends’ families did. My sister and I shared a small room until we left for college. We couldn’t just walk around the corner to a cafe or brunch spot—neither existed until recently, arriving with the third-wave coffee shops, microbreweries, and young white folks on bikes.

Martin Wong, Stanton Near Forsyth Street, 1983. Courtesy of the Estate of Martin Wong and P·P·O·W, New York.

When I first encountered Wong’s work at his posthumous Bronx Museum retrospective in 2015, I was enthralled by his tender, lonely visions of multicultural cityscapes; his hunger for beautiful, dangerous men; and his flagrant displays of desire. “During a challenging period for New York City, characterized by drastic urban changes, Wong created a series of paintings that capture the vibrancy of a resilient, artistic, and multiethnic community on the verge of displacement,” wrote then-museum director Holly Block in the exhibition’s catalogue.

Wong transgressed whatever unspoken rules I believed existed for urbane Chinese American artists, including that if one made art about race, it had to be primarily from the perspective of one’s own ethnic group. “Brimming with contradictory impulses, Wong was a social realist and a visionary dreamer, a painstaking craftsman and a lover of kitsch,” wrote poet and critic John Yau. “By bringing these very different, seemingly antagonistic possibilities into play, he became an iconoclast whose legacy includes expanding the narrow, received view of the ethnic painter as the storyteller (or spokesperson) for the tribe. For one thing, Wong’s tribe—the people he feels at home with and whom he chronicles—crosses racial boundaries and challenges gender stereotypes. It is a community simultaneously real and imagined.”

A self-taught painter, Wong “trips unabashedly through a landscape of desire, glorifying that which often gets passed over,” wrote artist Adam Putnam in 2009. His people are stout and stubby, muscled, curvaceous, mustachioed, born of both cartoon and outsider art traditions. His scenes are infused with enigmatic languages—finger spelling, constellation charts, graffiti, tattoos, Nuyorican poetry, sometimes many of these all at once—evoking a fantastical walk down New York City’s streets, a surreal version of its cacophony of languages, sounds, smells, and signs.

He thrived off his immediate surroundings, as graffiti artist Aaron “Sharp” Goodstone wrote in an essay about Wong: “Martin’s corner, Stanton and Ridge, was a tribal enclave of Jews, Puerto Ricans, Asians, dealers, punks, and squatters. This complex environment fed his creative dialogue.”

I recognize Wong’s depictions of “Loisaida,” the Black and Hispanic part of the Lower East Side where Wong lived and took his inspiration, celebrating it with rigor, empathy, and sometimes humor. The mainly residential neighborhood where I grew up in 1980s San Francisco was nowhere near as bustling as Wong’s Lower East Side, but it did have similar empty storefronts and streets full of working-class African Americans, Latinos, and Asian immigrants living, dreaming, and struggling side by side.

Like me, Wong was raised in San Francisco and moved to New York at age 32, finding inspiration in each place. Bricks are a major theme in his work, and I suspect it’s because they suffused his San Francisco eyes like they did mine when I first visited New York 20 years ago. Brick edifices are few in California, given the region’s earthquake risks. Wong immersed himself into New York City life with a fearlessness I can only aspire to. “For an artist to have hurled himself as completely as Wong did into the urban whirlpool that was the East Village at the height of the ’80s remains an almost unprecedented act among American self-taught artists,” wrote curator Dan Cameron in the catalogue to Wong’s first-ever museum retrospective in 1998.

Also like me, Wong was not first or second generation, as the majority of the Chinese American community is. As a third-generation Chinese American, he possessed a kind of critical distance that allowed him to explore how Chinese people are viewed and represented in this country through the lens of Americana kitsch. Beginning in the early ’90s, Wong turned his attention from the Latino enclave of the Lower East Side to Chinatown.

In these paintings, Wong depicted Kato, Bruce Lee, oyster sauce, lion dancers, and firecrackers. He described Chinatown as “an exotic Oriental extravaganza” and acknowledged his vantage point was a “tourist idea…an outsider’s view.” As curator Lydia Yee has written, these images “bear more resemblance to a Hollywood movie set than to any real locale.” For me, too, Chinatown often feels like a tourist playground, a performance of culture for the benefit of non-Chinese people, its true essence made impenetrable due to the language barrier.

There’s a kind of precariousness and an elegiac quality that underlies Wong’s work. Buildings can fall, whether by bulldozer or tremor. Rich neighborhood cultures can be erased with shocking ease and promptly built over with sterile, generic apartments and offices, diluted by the insidious creep of gentrification. Wong’s Lower East Side is now by and large a world long gone.

After learning he had AIDS, Wong moved back to San Francisco in 1994. In the years before his death, he painted the veiny, bulbous cacti in his mother’s garden. While the world that Wong so eloquently conveyed in his paintings no longer exists in quite the same way, the people and the communities he championed remain vibrant and full of life. Wong continued to create art until his final days, passing away in 1999 at age 53.

There was a lot I didn’t appreciate about my surrounding community growing up. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I recognized how much my neighborhood impacted my worldview and, eventually, my work as a journalist. To this day, I feel most comfortable in multiethnic communities; my current home is in New York’s Jackson Heights. Seeing Wong’s paintings and the clear-as-day love he felt for his neighborhood helped affirm my own experiences and concretize my mission as a storyteller. As a writer, understanding different perspectives is crucial, and I’ve dedicated most of my career to reporting on marginalized communities and amplifying their voices. As Wong’s work demonstrates, real, throbbing, messy life is happening everywhere, even in—especially in—places passed over. You just have to look closely to find it.

Lisa Wong Macabasco