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First Monday

Public Affairs


Artist's images of urban despair, utopia on exhibit

January 16, 2004

Image of Martin Wong's PolarisDecrepit buildings. Graffiti and sign language. Bricks, endless bricks. The backdrops to Martin Wong's allegorical paintings seem hardly the stuff of a utopian vision. Yet precisely such a vision is revealed in a new retrospective of his work sponsored by SFSU and the Chinese Historical Society of America.

"Martin Wong's Utopia" assembles some 20 of the artist's diverse and boundary-breaking paintings, ceramics and photographs, including never-seen-before works. The show, curated by SFSU art Professor Mark Johnson, runs Jan. 20-June 27 at the Chinese Historical Society Museum and Learning Center in San Francisco.

Alongside dark urban imagery, Wong's pieces are laced with multicultural metaphors, countercultural allusions and homoeroticism, transforming familiar and even stereotypical scenery into powerfully original compositions. His works have appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, Whitney Museum of Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art and other venues.

Johnson, also the director of the SFSU Fine Arts Gallery, says the art community has sometimes oversimplified Wong, who died of AIDS in 1999, as a chronicler of despair and cynicism. That point was stressed at Wong's largest show to date, titled "Sweet Oblivion," held in 1998 at New York's Museum of Contemporary Art.

But a closer look at Wong's output, particularly from his time in San Francisco, suggests the artist's lifelong fascination with utopian ideals, Johnson says. Such is the case with "Polaris," a richly colored painting of children of different ethnicities playing jacks in the heavens. Other pieces reference the utopian pageants Wong witnessed in hippie-era San Francisco and the Tai Ping egalitarian movement in 19th century imperial China.

Photo of Mark JohnsonA friend of the Wong family, Johnson was involved in a 1993 exhibit of Wong's work at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Johnson said that Wong was a creature of his environment, and in his life he inhabited two realms: the gritty artistic magnet of New York's Lower East Side and the nostalgic bustle of San Francisco's Chinatown. Born in Oregon in 1946, he grew up in San Francisco amid icons of counterculture juxtaposed with vibrant Chinese American subculture. His visual vocabulary began to emerge while studying at Humboldt State University in Arcata, where he also worked briefly as a courtroom artist.

He continued to divide his time between Humboldt County and San Francisco, including a design stint with the politicized gay theatre group The Angels of Light, until departing for New York in 1978. Settling into the pastiche of immigrants, hippies and blue-collar workers who filled the tenements on the Lower East Side, Wong soon made the emblems of urban decay -- crowding, graffiti, bricks -- his signatures.

His New York years earned him the most fame and set the tone for how many have come to view his work. After being diagnosed with AIDS, Wong moved back to San Francisco in 1995 to be with his family and continued producing new work up through the year of his death.

Admission to "Martin Wong's Utopia" is $3 general and $2 for students and seniors. For details, call (415) 391-1188 or visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Web site.

-- College of Creative Arts Public Relations Assistant Scott Heil

Feedback? Contact Matt Itelson.


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Last modified January 16, 2004, by the Office of Public Affairs