For two decades, the Hiram W. Johnson State Office Building on Golden Gate Avenue — a place where judges, lawyers, elected officials, and political activists go to work their magic — has contained a large Martin Wong painting on its lower level. Lion Dancers, which depicts a Chinatown New Year’s parade, is Wong at his best. The artwork is full of fiery reds and oranges, full of intricate details — the dragons are deliciously ferocious — and full of people experiencing every kind of emotion: laughter, joy, fright, and more.
Wong himself was “more.” He was a Chinese-American artist from San Francisco who embraced his primary ethnic culture but also many others, including prison culture, graffiti culture, and Latin culture, becoming a bona fide member of groups that thought of Wong as a brother.
Wong, whose father was half-Mexican and half-Chinese, was a fixture in New York for many years. In the 1980s, when New York art scholar Yasmin Ramirez described him as a “first-generation Chino-Latino artist” who “bridged the gaps between the Asian and Puerto Rican communities on the Lower East Side,” he approved. Wong also bridged many artistic gaps, including one between Asian painting, homoerotic imagery, and firefighter scenes. When Ramirez interviewed Wong at age 50, in 1996 — two years after he was diagnosed with AIDS — Wong said he was at peace with his career.
“When I was younger,” he said, “I was always paranoid that I would die before I could finish my paintings — and at a certain point, I actually finished them.”
Wong’s paintings at BAMPFA, in a retrospective called “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic,” reveal an artist who accomplished what every artist dreams of: namely, articulating a personal vision that’s profoundly unique and stirring. Wong amalgamated a myriad of artistic influences to create his own “Martin Wong style,” which reaches a kind of apotheosis in the 1987 painting called Sweet ‘Enuff, where he depicts a nighttime scene in which young skateboarders — surrounded by barbed wire and faded brick buildings — fly through the air next to a man sleeping on his boom box. The man, in turn, is adjacent to two mustachioed firefighters, who are all below a mapped constellation of stars and a motif of sign-language hands. The colors, balance, and perspective are somewhat reminiscent of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch or an ancient Chinese screen painting, but Wong squeezes everything into the scene on his own terms. One of the skateboarders looks right at the viewer, and so does one of the firemen — as if Wong himself were the object of their gaze.
Other works at BAMPFA include the 1983-84 King Heroin, a red-and-black scroll-like painting with a haunting written confessional — “I was hunted and sought by FBI agents and narco dicks but mostly by addicts in need of a fix” — and 1992’s In the Studio, an oval painting with a role reversal. In it, two Asian artists are doing a live nude study of an Asian man, whose outline suggests a kind of religious halo enveloping his body. The model’s tepid expression contrasts with the satiated look on one of the painters’ faces.
“His works are mesmerizing in their detail,” Mark Dean Johnson, professor of art at San Francisco State University and director of the Martin Wong Foundation, tells SF Weekly. Hip-hop, psychedelia, folk art, and contemporary fine art were among the many other influences on Wong, Johnson says, adding that Wong borrowed from “high and low to create a distinctive and unique approach to painting the city.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recognized Wong’s talent in 1984, when it purchased his Attorney Street (Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Miguel Piñero), while New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art gave him his first museum exhibit in 1998, “Street Oblivion: The Urban Landscape of Martin Wong.”
In between, Wong had solo and group exhibits at many U.S. galleries (especially in New York). What Wong did not achieve before his AIDS-related death in 1999 was major commercial and artistic recognition. But almost two decades later, his reputation continues to soar. “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” originated at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and went next to Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts. Wong’s works are now highly coveted and consistently sell for more than $50,000.
A long list of artists have been better recognized after their deaths, among them Jay DeFeo, who was the subject of a major SFMOMA retrospective in 2012, 23 years after the Bay Area artist’s untimely demise in 1989. Still, walking into BAMPFA’s main gallery, and surveying Wong’s formidable output — and then reading that he supported himself by working at the Metropolitan’s bookstore in 1987 — is to wonder why Wong wasn’t better celebrated during his lifetime.
Constance M. Lewallen, an adjunct curator at BAMPFA who assembled this iteration of “Martin Wong: Human Instamatic” — and who curated DeFeo’s first retrospective, at Philadelphia’s Moore College of Art and Design in 1996, after which it, too, traveled to BAMPFA — says Wong is a product of the 1960s, when commercial success wasn’t a goal for every artist.
“There’s a funny story about how, just before his first gallery show, he went out on the street and started selling his paintings for $20 or $30,” Lewallen tells SF Weekly. “His dealer said, ‘What are you doing?’ He relished his outsider status. And there was a kind of ethos in the Bay Area at that time and Jay DeFeo’s time about anti-commercialism, and being deliberately anti-gallery.”
Wong’s increased visibility includes his foundation’s scholarship support for art students at San Francisco State, Humboldt State University (which Wong attended), Arizona State University (which Wong’s father attended), and NYU. After Wong majored in ceramics at Humboldt State, he did sketches and portraits of people on the streets of Eureka, where he advertised himself as a “Human Instamatic” for the speed with which he could work. Engaging with strangers was a pleasure for him. On New York’s Lower East Side, Wong found himself with ex-cons, junkies, and other people who didn’t mind living in rundown buildings in a rundown neighborhood. Wong painted the way they lived and the way he lived. He painted his fantasies, too. Both converged onto his canvases — words, bodies, and bricks that became Wong’s vision of his home away from home.
The landscapes and waterways that Nicolò Sertorio photographs and frames at Corden | Potts Gallery are devoid of people, which isolates their beauty and complicates their distances. Yes, each image has tiny GPS coordinates on the bottom, along with a schematic illustration. And their titles, like 10S 646391mE 4014819mN-2, hint at global locations. But the photos are really clues that play with art-goers’ imaginations. The exhibit’s title, “Once We Were Here,” adds a layer of foreboding and mystery.
“I envision this as pieces that resemble found documents that seem to study human elements that changed the environment” and what could be “self-destructed civilization,” Sertorio tells SF Weekly. “This series went through different museums in Europe, and the prints were actually aged by dipping them in tea, and giving them brownish borders. In the U.S., they’re printed on Japanese paper, which reinforces the concept of a document, like a blueprint from an architectural studio.”
Based in Oakland, the Italian-born Sertorio has lived in India and throughout Europe, and has seen patterns of environmental behavior that — in the long-term if not the short-term — threaten to collapse ecosystems. In “Once We Were Here,” Sertorio acts as a kind of art-world messenger, where each image’s picturesqueness belies an environmental tension that needs little introduction.
“Martin Wong: Human Instamatic”
Through Dec. 10 at BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley. $10-$12; 510-642-0808 or bampfa.org
“Nicolò Sertorio: Once We Were Here”
Through Oct. 21 at Corden | Potts Gallery, 49 Geary St. 415-781-0110 or ordenpottsgallery.com