‘Hallucinatory pilgrimages’: the beautiful, melancholy genius of Matthew Wong

Specialist Asia Chiao reflects on the poignant legacy of the Canadian artist who ‘condensed a lifetime’s career into just a few, short, blazing years.’ The Journey Home, a triptych on the theme of family love, is offered in Hong Kong

The story of Matthew Wong’s rapid rise to stardom is one of the most remarkable of the past half century. The self-taught artist had only been painting seriously for five years when his first solo show in America — at Karma gallery in New York’s East Village — won him wide acclaim. Roberta Smith, chief art critic at The New York Times, described it as an ‘unforgettable debut’.

Tragically, 18 months later, on 2 October 2019 at the age of 35, Wong took his own life. His lifelong battle with Tourette’s syndrome, autism and depression had become unbearable.

The following month, a posthumous second solo show called Blue opened at the same gallery. Smith called it Wong’s ‘final rhapsody’ and declared him ‘one of the most talented painters of his generation’.

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate: HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Wong was born in Toronto in 1984. His parents worked in the textiles business, and when their only child was seven, they moved from Canada to Hong Kong. At the age of 15, by which time Wong was fluent in English and Mandarin, he and his family moved back to Toronto — in part to seek better treatment for Wong’s conditions.

In 2007, he completed a degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan, returning to Hong Kong after graduation. In 2010, heeding an urge to become an artist, he enrolled at the City University of Hong Kong, where he received an MFA in photography in 2013. Around the same time, he started to draw and paint.

‘Wong literally feels his way across the landscape, dot by dot, paint stroke by paint stroke’ — poet and critic John Yau

‘At first I just bought a cheap sketch pad along with a bottle of ink and made a mess every day in my bathroom, randomly pouring ink onto pages — smashing them together — hoping something interesting was going to come of it,’ the shy artist once revealed. ‘Pretty soon that was the only activity that sustained me in my daily routine.’

Wong immersed himself in books and internet forums, studying greats such as Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse. Within a year he had had his first taste of success: the Cuiheng Art Museum in Zhongshan, China, opened a solo show of his work in 2014. The following year, the Hong Kong Visual Arts Center mounted another.

By 2016, Wong and his parents had moved back to Canada. His work was selected by the curator Matthew Higgs for Outside, a group exhibition at Karma. It opened on Labor Day weekend in 2016, just as Wong’s mother turned 60. ‘He was so proud of himself because he’d always been dependent on his parents,’ she recalled.

Then, in 2017, Wong gained institutional recognition when the Dallas Museum of Art purchased his painting The West.

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate: HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

That same year, the consignor of The Journey Home — an acquaintance of Wong’s who had already visited his studio in Edmonton, Alberta — asked the artist to paint a three-panelled work on the theme of family love. One panel, he told Wong, was for himself, the second was to celebrate his own mother’s 60th birthday, and the third marked the birth of his brother’s baby.

‘The reaction to his work and exhibition is something we hadn’t experienced before with a young artist or a first show’ — Brendan Dugan, owner of Karma gallery

‘Wong weaved in his own personal story of a life spent journeying,’ says Chiao. ‘The triptych can be read in English (from left to right) or Mandarin (from right to left), but always shows a tiny figure at either end being lovingly watched over, under a setting or rising sun, as they come or go. The middle canvas, with its huge sun above a single sailing boat, speaks to the isolation of a lone journey.’

The artist’s vibrant impasto paint, applied in confident strokes, adds a sense of movement, says the specialist. ‘A deeply personal painting, the work really captures a sense of returning home.’

The poet and art critic John Yau has described Wong’s landscapes as ‘hallucinatory pilgrimages’. As he wrote in Hyperallergic  magazine, ‘Wong makes myriad lines, dots, daubs and short, lush brushstrokes, eventually arriving at an imaginary landscape that tilts away from the picture plane at an odd angle. A painterly cartographer, Wong literally feels his way across the landscape, dot by dot, paint stroke by paint stroke.’

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate: HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘The reaction to his work and exhibition is something we hadn’t experienced before with a young artist or a first show,’ said Brendan Dugan, the owner of Karma gallery, following the first of Wong’s solo shows there. ‘It was quite astounding. It was the same from critics, colleagues and collectors.’

Despite his success, the artist’s demons continued to plague him. As his mother later recalled, ‘He would just tell me, “You know, Mom, my mind, I’m fighting with the Devil every single day, every waking moment of my life.”’

In the months before his death, Wong finished the paintings he wanted to show in Blue. He also stipulated the details of the exhibition’s catalogue: he wanted his name to appear only on the final page.

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Market interest in Wong’s works has been significant. In 2019, Untitled — a still life watercolour purchased from his 2018 show at Karma — sold at auction for $62,500, more than six times its low estimate. In June 2020, The Realm of Appearances (2018), sold at auction for $1.8 million, more than 22 times its low estimate.

Then, in October this year, Shangri-La, a huge canvas of a garden painted within months of The Journey Home, sold at Christie’s in New York for $4.47 million, eclipsing its low estimate of $500,000. Thirteen buyers from around the globe registered to bid on the work.

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Matthew Wong (1984-2019), The Journey Home, 2017. Oil on wooden panel (triptych). 19⅞ x 16 in (50.5 x 40.5 cm) each. Estimate: HK$700,000-1,500,000. Offered in Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘I’ve never seen the market quite like this,’ says Chiao. ‘But these prices and this kind of attention are testament to Wong’s beautiful, melancholy genius as a painter, and reflect the fact that he condensed a lifetime’s career into just a few, short, blazing years.’

Matthew Wong’s  The Journey Home will be shown at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, No. 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, from 27 November, ahead of the  Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 2 December 2020