“He was a wanderer between two worlds and must ever wander...”
?J. Hilton, Lost Horizon, Chichester, 1933
Intricately exquisite and majestically luminous, Shangri-La presents an atmospheric landscape profuse with detached longing, in an abstracted, ethereal vista. With a riotous extravagance of line, lavish gem-toned flora pirouetting under brilliant branches surround a vertiginous and wonderous, pure white waterfall. The thickly-patterned, fertile vegetation within symbolizes renewal and plentitude, but perhaps more potently acts as a melancholic reminder of decay, mortality and the fragility of nature. Spanning eight feet tall and six feet across, the expansive composition overflows with vigorous patchworks of luscious and densely painted oil, rendered in a dramatic and lofty foreshortening that recalls modernist spatial abstractions. Shangri-La’s spirited and rich, tactile surface celebrates the haven the artist may have found through the act of mark-making, which is both solitary and communal.
Matthew Wong’s masterpiece from 2017 is an entrancing manifestation of his voracious study of masters such as Vincent van Gogh and Yayoi Kusama, who both produce their most iconic work in hallucinatory states. Always earnestly inquisitive and on the search for new perspectives, Wong was admittedly “an omnivore for sights, sounds and ideas” (M. Vogel, “Matthew Wong Reflects on the Melancholy of Life,” Art of Choice, November 2018). The radiantly patterned brushwork surely recalls the vivacious colors and forms of Les Nabis, the 19th Century Symbolist French collective founded by philosopher-painter Paul Serusier, characterized by Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard who embellish their compositions with earthy tones, ominous shadows and forlorn figures. While recalling Seurat’s colorful and brilliant Pointillism, Derain’s striking, fine Fauvist brushwork, Hockney’s vivid and grand canyons, and Jonas Wood’s tactile handling of plane and space, Shangri-La, enshrouded in ebullient color and envisioned from an omniscient vantage point, possesses a singular aura of otherworldliness.
Prior to painting professionally, the self-taught artist was a poet. It’s likely no coincidence that the title, Shangri-La, matches the name of the imagined, age-slowing paradise in the upper mountain ranges of Tibet intricately articulated in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. “We have reason. It is the entire meaning and purpose of Shangri-La. It came to me in a vision long, long ago. I foresaw a time when man exalting in the technique of murder, would rage so hotly over the world, that every book, every treasure would be doomed to destruction. This vision was so vivid and so moving that I determined to gather together all things of beauty and culture that I could and preserve them here against the doom toward which the world is rushing. Look at the world today. Is there anything more pitiful? What madness there is! What blindness! A scurrying mass of bewildered humanity crashing headlong against each other. The time must come, my friend, when brutality and the lust for power must perish by its own sword. For when that day comes, the world must begin to look for a new life. And it is our hope that they may find it here” (J. Hilton, Lost Horizon, Chichester, 1933). By referencing the fabled promised land known as Shangri-La, Wong distorts the genre of this painting, creating, all at once, a historical painting, a landscape and a striking avant-garde picture wrought with imagination and nostalgia. Christening the painting with an accessible and universal title creates an intimate yet shared space while accentuating the communal aspect of making art.
A self-proclaimed daydreamer and recluse, Wong considers his time in the studio as only a fraction of where he draws inspiration from. His spontaneous, intuitive and emotional working method draws energy from mediations on the natural and unnatural world around him. Wong states in a 2018 interview, “I would like my paintings to have something in them people across the spectrum can find things they identify with. I do believe that there is an inherent loneliness or melancholy to much of contemporary life, and on a broader level I feel my work speaks to this quality in addition to being a reflection of my thoughts, fascinations and impulses” (M. Vogel, “Matthew Wong Reflects on the Melancholy of Life,” Art of Choice, November 2018). Through his utility of space, Wong’s imagined world is one of gushing abundance where negative space becomes an opportunity to celebrate color and light. By acknowledging the isolation of the artist’s personal experience, it becomes impossible to ignore the lone, nearly-camouflaged figure whose back is to the viewer, looking onward and upward atop a blue peak at the lower left corner. The landscape that overflows with signs of fertility, plenty and promise invites the figure in, and Wong subtly yet ingeniously captures this striking moment of contemplation and deliberation. In Shangri-La, Wong reveals the innerworkings of his imagination while inviting the viewer to join him in his paradise. Ultimately, the painting acts as an invitation to know and be known, or to achieve ultimate paradise through this connection.
Shown at Galerie Frank Elbaz in 2017, one year prior to his first solo exhibition in New York in which he received critical acclaim and an explosive market response, Shangri-La evidences Wong’s virtuosic and confident handling of his newly-claimed medium as well as his instinctive and striking visual vocabulary that is uniquely his own. Art critic Roberta Smith aptly notes when describing her encounter with his work, “It was a visceral experience, like falling for an unforgettable song on first listen. It was deeply nourishing: my life had been improved and I know other people who have had the same reaction. Such relatively unalloyed pleasure is almost as essential as food” (R. Smith, “A Final Rhapsody in Blue from Matthew Wong”, New York Times, December 2019). This superlative example of Wong’s masterful synergy of color and form marks the artist’s visionary marriage of form and emotion that he continued to develop throughout his tragically short career. Beyond its impressive scale and painterly prowess, Shangri-La achieves a transcendent and intangible dual-existence between the world in which the artist creates versus the world he creates.