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Matthew Wong, Starry Night, 2019. Oil on canvas, 152.4 x 177.8 cm. © 2019 Matthew Wong Foundation. Image courtesy of Karma, New York.

Matthew Wong: Blue Sight

Art Gallery of Ontario

From August 13, 2021 to May 15, 2022

Organized by Julian Cox


That great sage of 20th century modernism, Gertrude Stein, said in 1926 that “the creator of the new composition in the arts is an outlaw until he is a classic, there is no hardly any moment in between”. When self-taught Chinese-Canadian painter Matthew Wong took his own life in 2019, he was young – but he had already achieved international fame. Will it soon be celebrated as a classic?

This question may come to mind when you see, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Matthew Wong: Blue Sight, the very first museum exhibition of the artist’s work. In the 20th century, but even earlier, pioneer painters began to see that painting was more than a medium; it had an expressive potential of its own. The artist’s task was to release this latent energy. This is what Wong did with paint and gouache, releasing emotional effects with colors such as cerulean, cobalt, navy, indigo, ultramarine and azure. (Before the blue period of his later years, Wong used a wider range of colors, including orange, golden yellow, earth brown, purple, green, and red. And even during this period, he strategically retained these colors in a non-dominant fashion to create drama and impact.)

Wong married his growing mastery of color with an ability to portray the known world as something so hypnotically strange that he made you see it again. The result: a pictorial equivalent of the estrangement or defamiliarization that Russian formalist critics, working in the first half of the twentieth century, called ostrania (“to make strange”). The term is no different from change of scenery, the descriptor often applied to surreal imagery. In an essay for a 2015 show on the surreal landscape, Ara H. Merjian suggests that the term implies the breaking of habit by “(moving) an individual to an unfamiliar land (pay).”

When Wong ended his life, he was only 35 years old and had struggled with depression since childhood. He also had Tourette syndrome and was on the autism spectrum. Born in Toronto, he graduated from high school in the city with an International Baccalaureate and then, in 2007, graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in Anthropology. Attracted to the creative arts (he writes poetry), he studied photography at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, obtaining an MFA in 2013. Photography did not absorb enough of his creative energies, and he turned to drawing and painting, which he discovered was his true profession. He learned to paint on his own through intense and varied activity online and on social media. He also spent time in libraries, studying the masters, including the great modernists.

Wong began to be noticed by the artistic community very quickly, and already in 2018 the Karma Gallery in New York crowned his art with a solo exhibition. A second Karma solo followed in 2019, but Wong died a month before the opening.

Just over three years ago, examining From Douanier Rousseau to Séraphine: The Great Naïve Masters (Musée Maillol, September 11, 2019-February 23, 2020), the FinancialTimes called it “a glorious Parisian exhibition [that showcased] the diverse work of isolated artists who followed in Rousseau’s footsteps. Most writings dealing with Wong refer to several modernist and contemporary artists as well as a few earlier artists, including van Gogh, as collegiate role models with whom the artist interacted virtually while learning to paint. Henri Rousseau is not predominant in these accounts. Yet this self-taught Post-Impressionist master crossed “the border into modernism,” as a 2001 retrospective suggested. He not only influenced other self-taught artists; he gave revealing ideas to many modernist masters, including Picasso, Robert Delaunay, Léger, Kandinsky and Miró. May I suggest that Wong followed their lead?

While Rousseau aimed for a finesse of finish consistent with the official art of his time, he also flouted the norms of conventional representation. Shadowless illumination, distorted juxtaposition of scales, “non-sense of perspective” and spatial disjunctions created in Rousseau’s paintings such a contradiction between appearance and subject, they have become enigmatic and strange. Strangely, too, Wong bewitched. See Rousseau A carnival evening, The walk in the forestand The sleeping gypsy. And then on the AGO show, see Wong’s Stairs, around midnightand The old world.

Matthew Wong, A Dream, 2019. Oil on canvas, 177.8 x 203_2 cm. © 2019 Matthew Wong Foundation. Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Image courtesy of Karma, New York.

Also consider A dream. The huge tree to the right of the painting is seen up close while to the left, beyond the odd pale blue path, what is seen is dense, mixed forest. The tree appears to possess a flame-like motion that is so dynamic you think of van Gogh’s cypresses. The forest, on the other hand, is full of silence and stillness. Beyond the tree and a second tree seen behind, beyond the forest, beyond the pink sand beach, is a stretch of blue-black water reflecting a sun shimmering illuminating a yellow and orange-yellow sky. Except for the tree, it’s a flat picture you see. But, if you keep looking at the area above the water, it suddenly takes on a life of its own, and you might then feel transported to a deeply mysterious experience. Wong employs technical stratagems close to those of Rousseau, but he succeeds change of scenery with a total effect entirely its own. You are prey to an enigma, a palpable interiority that seems to permeate the scene before you.

In the previously cited writings on Wong’s collegiate influences and ties, the Symbolist Edvard Munch featured more than Rousseau. He, too, sheds light on Wong’s success. As Øystein Ustvedt puts it in a new biography, as Munch developed as an artist, he wanted to confront realism (from 1850 to 1880, the dominant European cultural movement) and pursue “a more subjective and emotional art based on existential life experiences. Between this pursuit and Wong’s artistic goals, the congruence was compelling. Blue and its hues appealed to Munch for their allegorical connotations. See his Night in Saint Cloud, The kiss, Evening on Karl Johanand Melancholy. Then pair that with the search on the AGO show for most of Wong’s footage Blue paintings. You will see surprising connections – now look closely at his Starry Night, keeping in mind Vincent van Gogh’s iconic masterpiece as well as Munch’s painting of the same name. Each is unique. But they also belong to the same dynasty.

Matthew Wong, Nocturne d’automne, 2018. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.9 cm. © 2018 Matthew Wong Foundation. Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Image courtesy of Karma, New York.

In a 2018 review of an art exhibition by Wong, John Yau suggests that Wong’s work transcended a West-East binary and drew consistently from both Western and East Asian traditions. Yau sees a connection between Wong’s monochromatic brushstrokes and the incised surface of carved Asian lacquer. In an essay accompanying a 2021 exhibition of Wong’s ink drawings, Dawn Chan talks about her debt to Shitao and Bada Shinren, two Qing dynasty painters who began their careers in the Ming dynasty. “Both artists were famous for pushing the envelope of their ink painting toward surprising moments of expressive abstraction,” she writes.

Now let’s move on to oil painting Autumn nights— a work full of disjunctions of scale and perspective. We are at the heart of a nocturnal forest scene. On the left of the painting, a huge out-of-scale full moon appears to have descended into the forest, silhouetting a purple tree with its sparsely leafy branches as well as a few similar branches from a nearby tree. The remaining leaves are disproportionately large, so much so that you might think they are biomorphic objects. Wong is here riffing on a moon and tree branch motif often seen in East Asian landscape painting. To depict the unusually sloped forest floor, he uses dots and dashes of various purple hues in a pointillist manner, applying a strategy he developed in his ink drawings, in which his Western and Asian influences also fuse. Transcendence, longing, nostalgia, a dark spell — in his portrayal of an autumn night, Wong is near the limits of painting expressiveness, yet he magically conjures up such things for you.

Winnie Wong—in another exhibit essay—calls Matthew Wong a “genius from nowhere”. Wong created in his paintings a world so enigmatic, so haunting, so strange in its beauty, you can be lifted beyond yourself by going deeper into each painting, absorbing their emotionally charged symbolism. By lingering in the AGO program, you may even have the impression of being in the presence of the sublime. WM