Remember Matthew Wong’s humanity.
Easily lost in the art market’s rapacious commodification of his paintings and the media’s attempts to stereotypically mythologize his life, Matthew Wong was a person. A brilliant creative, a troubled soul–yes–but also a son, a friend, a painter.
Wong’s (b. Toronto, 1984–d. Edmonton, 2019) four short years as a shooting star in the contemporary art spotlight receive their first museum retrospective during “Matthew Wong: Blue View” at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto through April 18, 2022.
Wong’s story perfectly suits clichés for those interested in looking no further. The tormented self-taught artist–a modern day van Gogh–who, upon receiving near instantaneous glowing acclaim for his genius, snaps under the pressure, taking his own life.
An artist who shared such a deep vulnerability through his work deserves more in return than categorization as a trope. Until now, that’s mostly what he’s received.
Sensationalism around his suicide created a market feeding frenzy. His work was speculated upon as if he were a hot tech stock. in October of 2020, his painting Shangri-La (2017) sold at Christie’s for $4.5 million, more than four times above the asking price.
Wong became the flavor of the week. Fresh meat for the 24-hour news cycle. A new target for market vampires to find and flip. Contemporary art disgraced itself when Wong died.
He ceased to be a person, instead becoming a product.
At the Art Gallery of Ontario, Matthew Wong comes back into focus. Sensitive. Revealing. The heart and soul he poured into his work plain to see–no pre-sale estimates attached to them–the art, the artist and the onlooker.
Matthew Wong was seven years old when his family emigrated to Hong Kong, returning to Toronto when he was 15. The decision to return to Canada was partly influenced by Wong’s health–Wong was on the autism spectrum, had Tourette’s syndrome and had been diagnosed with depression at a young age.
He taught himself to draw and paint, experimenting with landscapes in his early 30s. The “self-taught” moniker belies his thorough education which included a degree in cultural anthropology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and an MFA in photography from the City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media.
Recognition for his painting came quickly.
In 2015, the Hong Kong Visual Arts Center held the first solo exhibition for his art. The work drew attention online, leading to Wong’s inclusion in Karma gallery’s 2016 exhibition “Outside,” held in Amagansett, New York. In 2018, Karma held the first solo exhibition of Wong’s work leading esteemed critic Jerry Saltz to call it “one of the most impressive solo New York debuts.”
The “New York Times” referred to him as “one of the most talented painters of his generation.”
Two attributes stand out among Wong’s work above all others: isolation and the color blue.
“His precise motivations about his interest in the color were never expressed in writing, but the volume and breadth of artworks that he made over a two to three year span–late in his career–make it clear that his interest in the color was expansive and unstinting and inspired by a lyrical and poetic sensibility,” Julian Cox, the AGO’s Deputy Director & Chief Curator, told Forbes.com of Wong’s compulsion to explore blue’s creative and expressive possibilities.
Melancholy–“the blues”–psychologically factor into Wong’s interest in the color, but Wong’s blues are the icy blues of the north. Wong’s cold blues reflect his home country of Canada the way Matisse’s blues reflected the warm sun of the French Riviera.
Desolate blue. Snowy blue. Frigid blue. Nighttime blue. Somber blue. Edmonton on the plains blue.
Wong’s “Blue Series’ (2017-2019) remain his signature works.
While the artist’s deep inspection of blue came later in his career, his paintings expressed a reoccurring sense of isolation throughout. In a 2018 interview, when asked about the melancholic tone of his art, he responded, “I do believe there is an inherent loneliness or melancholy to much of contemporary life, and on a broader level I feel my work speaks to this quality in addition to being a reflection of my thoughts, fascinations, and impulses.”
His paintings regularly depict loneliness–lone figures, lone houses, lone flowers, trees without leaves.
Considering Wong’s paintings–their deeply personal nature, the blues, the isolation, the yearning–separate of knowledge about his life and suicide proves difficult. It is an effort, however, that should be made.
“It is a mistake to overlook the technical and aesthetic sophistication of his paintings, which are extraordinary for an artist who was largely self-directed in his learning and development,” Cox explains. “The bravura and skill evident in his handling of paint is one of the characteristics that prompted critics to refer to him as one of the most talented painters of his generation. The paintings have to be seen in person to be properly appreciated; no reproduction can do them justice.”
Thirty-two paintings–large oils on canvas–and nine works on paper–small watercolors–are on display in “Blue View” alongside Wong’s poems and photographs. The AGO acquired its first work by the artist in 2020, a painting titled The Long Way Home (2014-15), gifted by Monita and Raymond Wong in memory of their son.
Another mistake easily made when thinking about Wong is too closely comparing him to van Gogh, an artist he had profound respect for and whom he responded to in his paintings. The similarities are obvious from the manner and age of their deaths to their devotion to blue and yellow respectively.
“Yes, there are some clear affinities between the two artists, but more serious art historical study is required to tease out the nuances of this,” Cox said. “We need to see more of Wong’s oeuvre and have a more intimate understanding of his biography, interests and inspirations so that we go beyond superficial comparisons. One way that they are very different, for example, is their relationship to the technology of their respective eras. Another is their relationship to the art market and art world of their time.”
Wong knew great admiration and success in his brief career; van Gogh, little in his.
“The circumstances of Wong’s passing combined with what we know of his biography combine to make for a tragic story, but Wong’s artistic journey is also very inspiring and indicative of how talent and ambition were remarkable driving forces in his life,” Cox said.