Matthew Wong’s Melancholy Art Continues to Captivate at First American Museum Exhibit in Dallas

Only one of Matthew Wong’s paintings entered a museum collection during his all-too-short life. He had sent his 2017 painting west at the Karma Gallery booth at that year’s Dallas Art Fair. It depicts a figure dressed in white seated on a hill beside a pair of flowers thrown aside and looking back, away from the foreground, towards a wide flat land marked only by a pair of trees and a road leading inexorably far away. – perhaps Wong’s cinematic image of the Texas landscape.

Arrived the day before the opening of the fair, he realized that he was not satisfied with the work. He furiously reworked the paint, adding the impossibly dense star field that now populates his night sky – a multitude of tiny luminous marks echoing the somewhat less dense dabs of black paint that dot the landscape of red earth below. And it is this stupendously starry sky that Wong has added, towering over the solitary witness of the landscape, that gives the painting its intensity – its visionary quality, if that is the word for an effect that is as much tactile as it is visual.

In any case, when the curators of the Dallas Museum of Art visited the fair the next day, they must have been just as struck by this strange and fervent painting – somehow both ecstatic and melancholy – as I am today. . The museum has a fund specifically for purchases from the fair, and they used it to acquire this painting by a mostly unknown Canadian artist, whose solo exhibitions to date, of very different works, had been held. in Hong Kong (where he had spent part of his childhood) and Zhongshan, China.

Matthew Wang, west (2017), oil on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Art Fair Foundation Acquisition Fund. Photo: © 2022 Matthew Wong Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Her closest connection to the American gallery scene had come from her participation the previous summer in a pop-up group exhibition curated by Matthew Higgs, director of New York’s venerable alternative space White Columns, in the Hamptons. The exhibition was organized under the auspices of Karma, the gallery that was now trying it out at the Dallas Art Fair. In any case, the painting on the upper part of west was still wet when it entered the DMA collection.

It is fitting, then, that the first US museum exhibition of Wong’s work (and the second, following a previous exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, since the artist’s death by suicide in 2019) takes place at the Dallas Museum of Art, where it is on view through February 19, 2023. The show, hosted by Vivian Le and titled “The Realm of Appearances,” traces Wong’s frantic development.

After earning a master’s degree in photography in 2012, he quickly became dissatisfied with the camera and began to learn drawing and painting on his own. The first works in this exhibition – drawings from 2014, paintings from 2015 – show the artist finding his way, experimenting (sometimes awkwardly) with materials. But Wong was already fixated on the subject that would occupy him for the rest of his life: the landscape and the very small role an individual human plays in the cosmos.

In the rare cases where Wong concentrates, like a portrait, on the human head, as in the diptych banishment from the garden, 2015, the face is practically obliterated. In an untitled ink drawing from 2015, for example, a head is obscured by a dull brushstroke glyph. In the distant background of another work depicting what appears to be a forest of birches—marvelously, the spaces between the trunks are also trunks—a tiny figure observes another in the foreground; I believe it represents the same person observing themselves as if from afar.

Matthew Wong, Once Upon a Time in the West (2018), gouache on paper. Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg. Photo: © 2022 Matthew Wong Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

By 2017, Wong had mastered his personal art style, which could be described as a synthesis of fauvism, folk art, and (as a Western viewer like me gleans from the excellent catalog) the “outdoor” painting movement. new ink” which took root in Hong Kong in the 1960s. He took his propensity for the “contradictory spaces” he admired in the work of Willem de Kooning, or what Lesley Ma , in the catalog, calls “constructions bordering on embarrassing”, with inharmonious juxtapositions of patterns and shapes. and strange manipulations of scale.

One of his favorite motifs – you could even say it’s archetypal – is the road or path that stretches out into the distance. Its purpose is always invisible. But the road never just crosses the landscape; he divides the land, divides it into parts. At the end of Path to the sea (2019), for example, the greyish-blue road appears to float entirely detached from the forest to its left and right; it’s not from the same world.

In a book like The kingdom (2017) – another birch forest image – Wong seems to try to include as many different types of marks as possible; it is the overall distribution of their disharmony that gives the painting its paradoxical unity, a unity that presents a nervous, even agitated surface, but which maintains an inner balance. The ruler of this realm is a tiny crowned figure ensconced in a free-standing vaulted niche, almost imperceptible but at the center of it all. I couldn’t help but wonder if Wong, a lover of poetry, hadn’t thought of the melancholy speaker in Charles Baudelaire’s “Spleen III”: “I am like the king of a rainy country, Rich but helpless, young and yet very old.”

Matthew Wang, river at night (2018), oil on canvas. Collection of Shio Kusaka and Jonas Wood. Photo: © 2022 Matthew Wong Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

But hyperactive compositions like The kingdom were never Wong’s only option. The wish (2016), a deep blue nocturne illuminated only by the thinnest sliver of a yellow moon, shining on a tiny figure crossing a mountain path, shows that he was always ready to leave everything behind rather than pile it all up. his final works of 2018-19 he began to do this more often, notably in the immensely pale, almost monochromatic morning mist (2019)a pure landscape filled with details that only emerge with breathtaking slowness.

Also at this time, interior spaces and still lifes multiplied, but always with a view of the exterior. The single delicate flower in a glass of water which is the ostensible subject of blue night (2018) simply seems to relay a message sent more emphatically by the gloriously blossoming orange tree blazing in the upper right window. This vivid but ambiguous message is the very essence of Wong’s art.

“The Realm of Appearances” is on view at the Dallas Museum of Art, through February 19, 2023.

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