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Exhibition Review

Martin Wong's Malicious Mischief : an immersion in 1980s American counterculture

Chloe Hodge

Aug 22, 2023

Installation view of Charlie Ahearn’s portrait of Martin Wong, 1998, at Camden Art Centre, London, 2023 © Camden Art Centre, London



1998, New York City. The artist Martin Wong, slight and shirtless, leads American filmmaker Charlie Ahearn through his apartment. He skirts past stacked up paintings before slipping through a doorway and brushing aside a black skull and crossbones flag which flutters in the breeze, acting as a makeshift door. “This apartment used to be nice, like Architectural Digest, but I had to take the whole living room apart to stretch this canvas,” Wong sighs, kneeling down to draw in the fierce expression of a lion dancer, employing his distinct two-handed technique. Wong has brought Ahearn here to see his latest works, the Chinatown series, based on his time spent in San Francisco and New York’s Chinatowns. 


“Most of the series is San Francisco,” Wong states, “and why not New York?” asks Ahearn before Wong responds indignantly, “Because that’s where I grew up, I grew up in San Francisco Chinatown.” The full stop is almost audible - Ahearn should know this, San Francisco is such a fundamental part of Wong’s work, and really, of his being. 



Angels of Light Free Theatre
Peking on Acid, Performed May 20, 1972 at Douglas Playground Park, San Francisco

Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief at Camden Art Centre, London is a 100-work survey of Wong’s wide-ranging practice, with Charlie Ahearn’s documentary providing an intimate introduction to the artist’s unique interior world. There is real intimacy in seeing Wong’s artworks both on-screen in his chaotic home studio, and in the flesh at the exhibition. Side by side, the exhibition and documentary perspicuously set out Wong’s plethora of influences: the phenomenon of the American Chinatown, the dilapidation and crime of 1980s New York, the individuals Wong became fascinated by, the drama and cross-dressing of Noh Theatre and, following this, the queer performance group, Angels of Light Free Theater.  



Wong credits Angels of Light Free Theatre with the “glitter and junk” that make their way into his otherworldly portraits of Chinatowns. Indeed, the influence of their 1972 drag show, Peking On Acid, is clear: wildly extravagant East Asian costumes dance in dilapidated streets, the very same juxtaposition of the ornate and urban found in Wong’s work. 

While Wong’s Chinatown paintings are not all decadence and drag, the colors, movement, smells and sounds of Chinatown become unbelievably vibrant and enticing in the context of a concrete and brick American city. At the center of these paintings is Wong as a little boy, awestruck. Sometimes he is physically present, like in Chinese New Year’s Parade (1992-1994), which depicts a small Wong engulfed by an enormous swirling dragon and being glared at by lion dancers who mix with an angry blue-faced crowd. Other times, the work manifests his childhood imaginings, such as in Bruce Lee in the Afterworld (1991), where the Chinese-American martial artist kicks out from the depths of a spiritual afterlife.  



My Secret World, 1978-81
​​© Martin Wong Foundation



Turning back to Ahearn’s documentary, the radio sounds and the camera shifts to film a 1970s TV set whose screen has been replaced with hundreds of tiny red bricks, painted in. Wong explains that his self-proclaimed “obsession” with miniature bricks began with the purchase of a toy railroad station. This motif came to represent order for Wong, harking back to the reliable regularity of the railway, and eventually appearing in many of his paintings. In My Secret World (1978-81), the windows of brownstone buildings reveal a tidy bedroom, perhaps Wong’s; and the Statue of Liberty is recast as a brooding piece of brickwork slotting into the city in Mrs Liberty Face (1990).


The brickwork also serves another purpose: a flat plane upon which to write. Text entered Wong’s work in a significant way after 1982, when poet and petty criminal Miguel Piñero came to his apartment, and stayed for a year and a half. In Ahearn’s film, Wong, unnerved yet excited, grins as he details the “outrageous stories” that Piñero and his ex-con friends brought over. Piñero was a rootless, unpredictable creative who flew out as quickly as he flew in. Still, having left behind drawers of manuscripts at Wong’s apartment, Piñero remained in the artist’s work for many years to come. Lines from his poems become borders in Wong’s paintings, are written up the side of his images of buildings, and are blocked out in Wong’s skies. It was through the guidance of Piñero that Wong painted his first neighborhood scene, and his stories generated Wong’s Prison Cell series which brought a more aggressive masculinity into Wong’s work. Piñero’s influence brings about a different edge - it is the world of underground New York, a world that was not quite Wong’s.



Diagnosed with AIDS in 1994, Wong moved from New York back to his hometown of San Francisco when his illness worsened in 1999. He marked poignantly in Malicious Mischief through a handwritten note he had sent to a friend: “You know that thing you have, turns out I have it too. Why don’t you come down here and we can eat good food?” Living in the care of his parents, Wong painted until his very last day, August 12, 1999, upon which he finished the work Did I Ever Have a Chance. Even in his very last work, a sense of humor prevails, apparent in the wry comment and utterly bizarre composition. A smiling, bright blue goddess or demon, part serpent, part woman, floats above a row of rabbits and skulls, carrying a machine gun, a reel of skull-bullets slung across her body. 

Did I Ever Have a Chance, 1999
© Martin Wong Foundation




Martin Wong's Malicious Mischief is on view at Camden Art Centre, London from Jun 16 - Sep 17, 2023.


For more information, please click here.