In This Exhibition

In this exhibition the term "activism" is seen as and extended to include the very act of artistic production, as well as the archiving and documentation of ignored or persecuted artists and communities. At a time when the downtown scene was cast as the refuse of the city, Martin Wong painted the Lower East Side as monumental landscape and its inhabitants, including many artists he met and knew, in the scale of historical paintings. Although not one to pointedly create works as an act of activism nor self-identify as an activist, Wong collaborated on projects for AIDS awareness and research and in reaction to the violent student struggle for Democracy at Tiananmen Square. Wong's activism also included his support and celebration of Graffiti art. The artist avidly collected Graffiti not only when no one was doing so, but during a time when the city under Mayor Dinkins was at its height of actively eradicating Graffiti from the subways.

Drawing materials from the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University along with personal collections, "Art, Archives and Activism" presents a story of a time and the interconnectedness of the artists with the world around them through artwork, letters, photographs, videos, postcards, posters, and flyers of participant artists. The exhibition traverses two decades, presenting an artist's life and the issues that engulfed him, catalyzed from these connections and overlapping paths.
City Living &mdash Loisaida
"It looked like a war zone"

During the early to mid '80s, the Lower East Side was marked by crack dealers, city crackdowns, protests against forcible relocations and urban renewal efforts. The bricked and shuttered windows of abandoned buildings were the environs in which Wong created his urban landscape paintings, which reflected the Lower East Side at the time. Trained as a ceramicist, the colors that Wong used were culled from the paints used in the craft, from iron oxides to gold, accenting the decaying brick walls of these Lower East Side tenements he so carefully rendered. In his series of paintings that concentrate on such subjects as prison and tenement life such as C76, Junior and Portrait of Piñero, he was able to create remarkable textural and effects of light with sometimes just three or four paint hues. In 1982, Wong met partner, poet Miguel "Mikey" Piñero, whose life had been patchworked with crime, including time spent in prison. Wong was greatly influenced by "Mikey," as the artist referred to him, which can be seen in the writings and the figure of the poet that appears within his paintings. Wong would often refer to his use of poetry in his work as mimicking the poetry inscribed on traditional Chinese landscape paintings. The resulting pieces bring a romance to otherwise dour circumstances from prison cells to the towering tenements, where to escape was only possible after rising above the monumental bricks to the poetry and constellations he was so fond of rendering in the sky.
Artists Crossings

During the '80s, the effects of the AIDS epidemic increasingly shook the art world, including artists such as Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz and later, Wong himself. Artists and gallerists came together to work on benefits and fundraisers for AIDS research and activism. The Usual Suspects, created in 1996, is one such collaboration, which was curated by Chris "Daze" Ellis, printed by Nenad Bozie and published by Avanti Galleries, Inc., New York to benefit Community Research Initiative on AIDS (CRIA).

Wong also made a deep impression on artists that he met, whether through project collaborations or as an influence to their current or future work. Jane Dickson's piece Witness B.E. dialogues with Martin's theatrical windows that can be seen in his work La Vida. Fellow artist John Ahearn, working out of the Bronx, exchanged artwork and sketches with Wong. He found in Wong another artist working across communities. Artists such as Chris "Daze" Ellis, Sharp, Lee Quiñones, and Lady Pink met Wong early in their careers in their teens and twenties and found a mentor, friend, and supporter of their work in the older artist.
Culture Wars

In the late '80s and early '90s, the idea of the "quality" of artwork was being heavily debated. First Amendment rights became the center of that debate. The role of the government in funding issuedriven art seeped from theory to a topic being discussed by popular television talk shows at the time. Exhibitions for artists including Robert Mapplethorpe and Jenny Holzer were taken down and funding was withdrawn by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for grant awardees.

Also during this time, graffiti art was a highly contested form of art. In May of 1989, it was announced by city officials that graffiti had been erased from the subways of New York City. Wong greatly supported graffiti art, believing that it was the last great art movement of the twentieth century. With his friend Peter Broda and the help of a Japanese investor, he opened the Museum of American Graffiti in the summer of 1989 and showcased the works of graffiti artists, including A-One, Chris "Daze" Ellis, Lady Pink, LA2, Lee Quiñones, John "Crash" Matos, Sharp, and others.

Wong was known by his friends to have sold artwork from his personal collection in order to purchase work for his graffiti collection. His friends not only remember his eccentricities &mdash such as painting with both hands at once, his enormous appetite, and his affinity for ornamental cowboy shirts &mdash but also his purposeful and strategic drive and ambition as an artist and collector. Though the museum was short-lived and closed after just two exhibitions due to the economic recession caused by the market crash in October of 1989, commonly referred to as Friday the 13th, Wong would become one of the most important collectors of American graffiti. His collection was eventually donated to the Museum of the City of New York.

In his own artwork, the subjects of Wong's art were heavily debated. Wong was best known for his realistic portrayal of life in the Lower East Side Latino neighborhoods. When he created a series of work on Chinatown for PPOW in 1993, the work was created from a fictional, highly stylized 1940s Chinatown, which he (re)imagined through postcards, trinkets and his childhood memories.

Although Wong would only minimally take part in Asian American artists' collectives, such as Godzilla, his participation in their shows and dialogues with artists from China reveals the investigation of his cultural heritage in his work. However, the artist found himself always somehow set apart from his Chinese heritage due to the fact that he did not speak Chinese. Notably, he took part in such shows as the "New World Order III: The Curio Shop Exhibition" in 1993 at Artists Space and the "CHINA June 4, 1989" exhibition organized by the Asian American Arts Centre. Artist Bing Lee, who invited Wong to join both shows recalled Martin’s particular fascination with the Peking Opera star Mei Lan Fang and his interest in learning about Asia, where he would never travel in his lifetime. Lee recalled Martin Wong as loving three things: firemen, graffiti artists, and Mei Lan Fang.