The Human Instamatic
The Bronx Museum, New York, NY
by Adam Zucker
“The Human Instamatic,” the title of Martin Wong’s first New York museum retrospective is culled from the nickname given to Wong early in his art making career. Looking at the scope of his work, it is evident the title personifies him, as an artist who expressed the depth of humanity within the contemporary urban community.
Wong had humble beginnings, born in Portland, Oregon and raised in San Francisco. He was largely self-taught as a painter making portraits, which he sold at street fairs throughout Eureka, California. Part of his inspiration to move to New York in 1978, was prompted by a friend that his success in Eureka was OK, but to be similarly successful in the Art Mecca of the country would make him a star.
Following his dream, Wong soon lived, breathed and fully embodied the life of downtown Manhattan. From the beginning of his time in New York he had a penchant for romanticizing the blighted environment that often engulfed his subjects. This is not simplistic idealization however, but rather stems from his direct relationship with his peers in the art community. This can be seen in a number of his works, such as the lovers in the painting Sharp and Dottie (1984). Setting the two lovers in a dystopic urban setting presents a powerful juxtaposition. The painting depicts two lovers, acquaintances of Wong’s - - embracing one another within a pile of rubble in front of a towering tenement building. On one hand the painting depicts the displacement that the ethnically diverse community faced in light of the neighborhood’s deterioration and eventual gentrification; on the other hand it envisions the redemption of the human spirit.
Wong’s passion for human nature is also evident in Big Heat (1988), where a tenement building burning in the background is juxtaposed by the fiery passion between two lip-locked firemen who have little interest in the building’s fate. Here, Wong presented a utopian vision of love in a seemingly unlikely environment. Wong’s fascination with fire fighters is further evident in the painting My Fire Guy (1988), where the artist wrote “I really like the way firemen smell when they get off work, it’s like hickory smoked rubber and B.O.”
He was also enthralled by the graffiti movement and often headed out with crews on the Lower East Side while they created large elaborate tags on buildings and objects within the urban environment. Attorney Street (Handball Court With Autobiographical Poem by Piñero) preserves one of the pieces created by a graffiti-writing friend of Miguel Piñero, Wong’s partner and sometimes collaborator. In this work, Piñero’s poetry fills the top grey sky portion of the painting and on the surface of the handball court Wong paints large hands that sign a line Piñero wrote for the film Fort Apache (1981): “It’s the real deal Neal, I’m going to rock your world.”
In these works, Wong’s inimitable mixture of kitsch and high art collide. Not only is this seen in his stylized imagery sourced directly from his loosely edited experiences, but also in his potent use of symbolism. In many of his works he blends imagery such as red iron oxide bricks and cartoon like hands signing in American Sign Language. The sign language is an allegory for his alienation, and the bricks are metaphors for an obstacle or an entrapment. However, bricks don’t always carry negative connotations. These bricks, and Wong’s oeuvre in general, produce nostalgia for the gritty and edgy city prior to the influx of glass towers, obscene wealth, and blasé boutiques seen today.
After tragically dying from an AIDS related illness in 1999, Martin Wong’s artistic legacy had been as an outsider, unnoticed by larger audiences until just recently. Near the show’s exit is a group of late works made after he was diagnosed with HIV. He was back in San Francisco living in his parent’s house. These black and white canvases of succulent plants are the most mysterious works in the show. Composed as if shot through a macro lens, these plants seemingly symbolize a sublime return to nature. The Human Instamatic has risen once more.