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Martin Wong (1946-1999)
Courtroom Shocker
signed, dated and titled 'COURTROOM SHOCKER JIMMY the WEASIL SIGNS LIKE A CANARY MARTIN WONG NOV. 1983' (lower center)
acrylic on canvas in artist's frame
48 x 48 in. (122 x 122 cm.)
Painted in 1983.
Private collection, Venice
Anon. sale; Christie's, East, 20 February 2001, lot 122
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

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Eliza Netter
Eliza Netter

Lot Essay

Executed in 1983, Courtroom Shocker is a rare and unusually large-scale painting by the iconoclastic painter Martin Wong. Wong is not necessarily a household name; yet he is seen as a legendary figure in the New York 80s East Village art scene. Growing up in San Francisco and active in the Bay Area art scene in the early 70s, the artist moved to New York in 1978 where he became a denizen and cult figure of the East Village art scene.

In Courtroom Shocker, rows of gesticulating hands populate the center of the painting, with a seemingly crumbling brick wall framing the edges evoking East Village tenements of the time. In tabloid-like declaration, the viewer also reads ‘JIMMY THE WEASIL SINGS LIKE A CANARY’ – a slang reference to Jimmy Fratianno, the infamous Italian-born American mobster who would later became an FBI informant. A closer look at this puzzling composition, one would realize the fingerspelling element of the hands references not just the title of the work, but also gang languages of the criminal world. Wong’s interest in graffiti also plays a big part in his oeuvre but there lies many other subtexts, such the themes of racial stereotypes and cultural connotations. With an interest in surfaces and symbols, Courtroom Shocker can be seen as a coded cityscape that reveals the cosmos and hardness of life in the 80s East Village. “Codes were important to Wong, from sign language to astrological symbols to the silent signals with which the historically subjugated (specifically homosexuals) have had to communicate… a brick wall isn’t a dead end but a clue to look around for signs of life amid the rubble” (N. Stillman, ‘Martin Wong’, Artforum, April 2010, p. 193). The tattered surfaces in the painting are in fact meticulous painted - each brick has been individually rendered with great trompe l’oeil effect – unfolding visual clues for the view to decipher.

As Roberta Smith wrote in Wong’s obituary after his untimely death at the age of 53 of AIDS-related causes, “Mr. Wong carved out a territory all his own. His art was as culturally complex as his appearance, which was usually distinguished by a Fu Manchu mustache and a cowboy hat. And it certainly lived up to his background, which included a degree in ceramics, a stint with a gay performance street troupe in San Francisco and expertise in such diverse areas as Asian painting, calligraphy and decorative arts; American antiques; the gift shop souvenirs of San Francisco's Chinatown, and graffiti art…” (R. Smith, ‘Martin Wong is Dead at 53; A Painter of Poetic Realism’, New York Times, 18 August 1999). As a self-taught painter, Wong captured the dynamics of his surrounding neighborhoods in the process of urban gentrification. Wong’s work has a gritty sensibility that compares to the likes of Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz and Gordon Matta-Clark. In this case, Courtroom Shocker can be seen as a trademark work imbued with Wong’s dynamic eclecticism – at once cryptic, humorous and teeming with a coded sense of angst and estrangement.

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