Never Quite Together: Martin Wong

 Martin Wong, Come Over Here Rockface , 1994, acrylic on canvas, 58 x 74 cm. Courtesy: the Martin Wong Foundation and P·P·O·W, New York

A painter of urban brick abandonment, Chinatown merchants, and kissing inmates, Martin Wong is having a moment, kindled by an interest in intersectional figuration twenty years after his death. Yet his images of society’s margins are as enigmatic as they are empathetic: Hot yet held back, they reflect his desire to be both one with and apart from the worlds he drifted into.

“I don’t know why everyone assumes they’re kissing,” said Martin Wong about his painting Big Heat (1986–88), in which two firefighters are most certainly kissing. “They just happen to be Siamese twins joined at the mouth.” Wong offered his clarification on the daytime television program People Are Talking. Introduced by host Bill Boggs with the question “Is it art or is it diarrhea?”, the segment convened a panel of artists to defend subversive artwork against a jeering studio audience. While Big Heat is on stage with the other artists, Wong is not. He waits instead until the end of the program to stand up among the showgoers and perform his farce. Wearing a black-and-white buffalo plaid shirt over a pea-green dress shirt, and a striped purple tie with a bull hinge clip attached, Wong’s bohemianism – like his remark – edges close to the clownish. For the first and last time during the program, artists and audience laugh together, albeit with muted confusion.

Wong was reluctant to participate in political debate, even when his work did. The artist kept some meanings close to the chest. A note in his sketchbook describes Big Heat as “an allegory for the age of AIDS representing Hypnos & Thanatos, sleep & death,” twin brothers in Greek mythology who usher the dead to the underworld. He understood how setting his firefighters in front of a scorched tenement bound gay affection to the catastrophe he witnessed in New York during the 1980s. The emptied building summons abandonment and neglect in no uncertain terms – the kind of abandonment that landlords brought to the Lower East Side when they burned down apartments to collect insurance, and the kind of neglect that politicians brought to the AIDS crisis, which Ronald Reagan did not acknowledge until 1985. But the firefighters’ locked lips are forceful, at a moment when such touch was scandalized and maligned. Wong was rarely one for unilateral sentiments; the painting confronts even as it mourns, even as it romanticizes...

– This text appears in full in Spike #76 – An Artist’s Life. You can get it in our online shop