In Voices (1981), Martin Wong depicts a blank sash window, drawn partly upward to reveal a wall of bricks outside. Painting with trompe-l’oeil realism on true-to-life scale, he makes the window analogous to the canvas, playing an old conceptual joke about painting as an aperture through which to view the world: rather than an open landscape, we are met with iron bars and an impenetrable, bricked-up surface. Voices is an early example of Wong’s paintings of his surroundings in Lower East Side New York, where he had moved from San Francisco in 1978. These gritty, playful and intelligent works are born of the same environment as Wong’s graffiti-artist contemporaries like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, but reflect it in an entirely different way. Rather than working with neon colours, cartoonish figures and bold text, Wong’s paintings directly address the surfaces of urban life, becoming poetic, near-archaeological documents of 1980s Manhattan.
At a time when many artists focused on themes relevant to their ethnic heritage or sexual identity, Wong – a gay man born to Chinese parents in Portland, Oregon, and raised in San Francisco –explored the diversity of his working-class neighbourhood with open eyes. He blended a social realist approach with keen visual wit and an interest in language and semiotics, finding complex and generative beauty in the crumbling tenements, hotels and storefronts of Manhattan. Recent years have seen his genius recognised: Wong was the subject of a critically-acclaimed exhibition organised by the Bronx Museum in New York in 2015 (which travelled to the Wexner Art Center, Columbus, Ohio), and his work is held in important public collections including New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art.
The meticulous, tactile attention to reality evident in Voices extended to Wong’s attitude to words; he understood that pictures could be a mode of speech. ‘Both storey and story come from Latin historia’, he wrote on a painting in 1985. ‘Storey itself was borrowed directly from Anglo-Latin historia, which was used for “picture,” and may have denoted a “row of pictures in the form of stained glass windows or statues, telling a story,” which filled the entire wall between floor and ceiling at a given level of a building. My storey [sic] is not a simple one’ (M. Wong, quoted in B. Blinderman, ‘The Writing on the Wall’, in Sweet Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong, exh. cat. New Museum, New York, p. 18).