Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief | Camden Art Centre

Martin Wong was a supremely gifted painter of brickwork. Close-set, dirt-ringed, orangey-brown, they’re the bricks of the tenement buildings of the Lower East Side of New York City which surrounded the apartment where he lived in the 1980s, before moving back to his native San Francisco and succumbing to HIV/AIDS in 1999.

Previously unfamiliar with this artist, I saw a work of his in the Whitney’s permanent collection earlier this year and it almost took my breath away. There was something in his bricks that was so immediately evocative of the city that surrounded me. So I was really excited to learn that he was getting a larger retrospective exhibition of his own in London, which has just opened at Camden Art Centre.

Martin Wong ‘Malicious Mischief’ (installation view)

While Wong’s artistic career is bookended by work from the west coast - he started out as a Haight-Ashbury hippie in the 1960s - a satisfyingly chunky bit of the show is focused on his New York City years. Painted bricks are everywhere - on paintings large and small, on a heart-shaped work on the floor, and even set inside an old TV.

Signs and symbols recur over and over in these paintings: like so many artists, Wong came up with an iconography of his own. His included a magic 8-ball. Disembodied hands making signs. Gold-outlined stars and constellations. He frequently added descriptions of the scene, painted onto the brick walls in his close-set, spidery handwriting. It’s a small leap to compare the artist to more famous artists working in the same place at the same time: in his loquaciousness, Jean-Michel Basquiat, in his symbology, Keith Haring. But Wong’s quieter, more introverted style comes through in that brickwork again - the patterns are sombrely-coloured and intricate; not big, brash and florescent like his peers.

Martin Wong ‘Meyer’s Hotel’ (1980-81) Meyer’s Hotel (1980-81)

What was Wong like as a person? In an essay accompanying the show, Zully Adler makes explicit what we could guess at just from looking at the works. “Wong became a hermit of sorts… Days could pass hypnotised by the repetition of individually painted bricks. Lunch was often eaten at three in the morning.

“The work of Martin Wong… pries open the prospect of connection in moments of contrast. His ability to capture this contradiction is predicated, in part, on the way he never fully identified with the worlds in which he was nonetheless embedded.”

Hermetically sealed in his top-floor apartment, he painted what he saw around him. Biographical details make clear that his perspective is one of both insider and outsider: gay, Chinese-American, living in semi-squalor but from a rich family, sociable but withdrawn. There’s a lot to read into those bricks. It’s their fault for being so expressive, though.

Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief is at Camden Art Centre (London). 16 June - 17 September 2023