On ViewGalerie Buchholz
April 29 – June 11, 2022
Today, Martin Wong (1946–1999) is undoubtedly best known as an unwavering chronicler of a bygone era in New York’s Loisaida neighborhood, his meticulous renderings of the material world’s seemingly inconsequential details, like brick walls or chain-wire fencing, and, of course, his adaptation of the fingerspelling gestures used in American Sign Language. While Dream Fungus, an exhibition of Wong’s diverse artistic production before his move to New York in 1978, presents none of these characteristic motifs, the assembled artistic visions at Buchholz Gallery in Berlin have seemingly created the spores that would inform Wong’s later oeuvre: the stylized lettering of poems on long scrolls of rice paper anticipates his interest in expressive systems of symbols and signs, the painted brick stones of his famed paintings find a sculptural equivalent in ceramic figurines (bricks are subsumed under the category of ceramics), and his portraits and cityscapes already exemplify a deep appreciation for the mundane and often overlooked facets of contemporary urban life.
Born in Portland, Oregon, as the son of Chinese immigrants, Wong moved to Eureka, California, in 1968 to study ceramics at Humboldt State University. Considering both his calligraphic work on rice paper shown in Berlin and the fact that he authenticated those and other early pieces by using a custom stamp spelling “Dream Fungus” in Chinese characters, this early interest in ceramics might have been another way to build on his own heritage and to actualize a millennia-old tradition of Chinese culture—especially in the face of persistent anti-Chinese sentiment. Incidentally, in 1966, when Wong had been enrolled in an architecture program at University of California, Berkeley, the newly established Asian Art Museum opened at a wing of San Francisco’s de Young Museum to display Avery Brundage’s collection, which also comprised thousands of ancient ceramics from different regions and periods. While Wong’s sculptures admittedly don’t have much in common with those historical artifacts—many of the pieces exhibited at Buchholz rather resemble some sort of extraterrestrial cavities—a series of so-called “Love Letter Incinerators” allows some remote associations to Chinese censers. These objects were traditionally used to burn incense for either medicinal or ritual reasons—but the act of burning has itself been considered an artistic practice called xiangdao. Perhaps Wong’s two-legged censer-creatures, each equipped with a moveable door for better combustion, combined it all: as an artistic means to solace or heal a broken heart through the ritualized burning of love letters.
But his “Incinerators” are also testament to an art practice that is motivated by the immediacy of his lived experience and his sentient interaction with the communal world around him, which becomes more obvious in the exhibited graphite drawings that articulate some sort of personal love letter to the city of Eureka. Initially established in the 1850s as a supply post for the burgeoning gold mining industry, the city of Eureka prospered as a hub for the profitable timber industry because of its location in the coastal redwood forest and its control of the primary port facilities. As a result of the ever-growing demand for lumber, a bustling commercial district with ornate Victorian-style buildings, today’s historic Old Town, arose in close proximity to the waterfront. For nearly a century onwards, this area assuaged the rampant yearnings of locally employed loggers and off-duty sailors with numerous saloons, cabarets, and brothels. The ever-busy fishing and lumber industries, in fact, kept bars and sex workers buzzing well up until the 1950s, at which point this area, still home to a large working-class population, began attracting a diverse community of artists. However, by the 1970s, when Old Town was run down and its streets were lined with vacant lots as well as empty storefronts, the municipal government committed to a so-called redevelopment of the area.
It was during this time that precisely those seedier sides and sites of both Old Town and the waterfront became the subject of Wong’s art. As he noted in the introduction to a rare 1976 catalogue of his drawings, his Eureka Sketchbook depicted the parts of town that city officials do not want you to see. Consequently, his subjects weren’t the architectural, yet dilapidated, splendors of Victorian houses or the sublime sights of Humboldt County’s coastal redwoods but rather ordinary, low-brow places like roadside attractions, diners, cheap motels, and liquor stores. Located mainly on a commercial strip alongside Route 101, these seemingly unimportant places, which could be situated almost anywhere in the United States, were nevertheless of significance as communal spaces for the local residents—among them Wong himself, as he emphasized in 1977 by claiming that “downtown Eureka is sort of like my living room [… and] I really object to the fact that they are tearing it apart faster than the eye can possibly catch.”
Caught are, in the show at Buchholz, besides the portrait of a violinist named Gary Smith (Gary Smith, Time + Date Unknown, Playing Soldier’s Joy, ca. 1975), three views of Eureka from Wong’s Sketchbook: Sabrina Pizza House (1976), Pete’s Supermarket Liquors (1977), and World Famous Stump House (ca. 1976). None of these places exist anymore, they fell victim to redevelopment plans and the resulting displacement of Eureka’s working-class communities. The drawings seem to give a premonition of this fate: while each depiction is buzzing with advertisements, we are their single addressee as no soul wanders the streets of downtown Eureka, the living room is already swept empty.