Contributed by Jacob Patrick Brooks / Matthew Wong’s work is easy to love for a lot of reasons, the foremost being its ability to be so many things at once. Both lavish and meditative, it references art history extensively while fitting comfortably into the contemporary art world. Despite the relatively banal subject matter – essentially, nature – the way it is handled elevates the art and makes it enthralling, like secrets gently whispered. His current show at Cheim & Read continues this theme, but instead of oil on canvas, it’s ink on paper. “Footprints in the Wind” consists of 24 ink drawings that have never before been publicly exhibited. It ranges in style from completely abstract grids to Wong’s signature landscapes. Though deprived of color, they convey a complex sense of melancholy, peace, and sometimes hope.
Wong is a maximalist and an expressionist, extremely resourceful in finding novel ways to visually describe the bark of a tree, blades of grass, or even the sun, which can take shape as casual circle with grey lines inside that looks more like a target than a flaming ball of gas. His work is effusive, verging on erratic, as though the ink simply poured telepathically out of him onto the paper. Works like The Sun duly encapsulate his impulses towards explosive emotion. Just above the center of the paper, a grey nucleus of light expands outward, its black rays gracing its surroundings with warmth and forming crosshatches across tall grass and trees. Behind the orb are either mountains or weeping willows, hunched over and groggy in the morning light. Everything in the image seems to orbit this moment of action, either reaching in desire or standing in awe. Despite the apocalyptic implications of an orb of light descending in a clearing, it’s an oddly calming image. Perhaps it shows how angels greeted the Minor Prophets as beautiful, vaguely threatening, and completely overwhelming. Wong’s confidence invites us to wonder but keeps us from doubting.
Many of the images – for instance, those in Heaven and Earth – straddle a line between busy abstraction and compulsive description. Inky spider webs stretch across the surface, trapping viewers in a net of emotional outburst. The negative space between thick vines gives the image room to breathe, but withholds complete relief with hints of leaves and drips of grey, diluted ink. Despite its evidently frantic execution, there’s never a sense that Wong has lost control. The effect is rather to unite the artist with the artwork, so that it feels as though Wong himself is in the room.
Wong died by suicide in 2019 at age 35. It’s hard not to view what he left behind through a lens of tragic inevitability. What may have felt fun, quirky, or beautiful before may seem morbid and sad in retrospect. What should have been a promising artist’s juvenilia is now a life’s work. Despite the relatively limited size of his oeuvre, it is so evocative and cohesive that it does help us to understand what the world was like for him. Splayed across the rice paper in ink are experiments with a visual language that did coalesce before he was through. He plays with perspective, figuration, and full-blown abstraction. If you’re not trapped in a grid, you’re peering through a portal. When walking through the exhibition, you may feel as if you’re intruding on something extremely private. Yet he clearly wanted others to see what he saw. The great constant in this remarkable, moving exhibition is Wong’s fearlessness.
“Matthew Wong: Footprints in the Wind,” Cheim & Read, 23 E. 67th Street, New York, NY. Through September 3, 2021.
About the author: Jacob Patrick Brooks is a Brooklyn painter who grew up in Kansas.