Bronx Museum of the Arts: Martin Wong, (DE) (RE) CONSTRUCT, Transitions

This winter the Bronx Museum of the Arts has three exhibitions to bring forth different aspects of life and art in New York City: a gritty and intimate solo exhibition, reflections on the urban landscape from the permanent landscape, and a view of a little understood country through the camera lens.

Martin Wong: Human Instamatic is a large posthumous retrospective of Chinese-American painter Martin Wong. There have been several exhibitions highlighting his role as collector and muse for contemporary artists, but this one is the first to bring together his work as a painter since his death in 1999. It starts with his early works as a street artist in Eureka, CA but mostly focuses on his time in New York, especially his years on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s.

Martin Wong
[Martin Wong]

The Lower East Side of that era was a notoriously gritty neighborhood, as exemplified in the painting above. But there was a vibrant multi-ethnic community of artists and musicians living among the dilapidated buildings. Wong’s work documents the artistic and daily life of the area, but does so in a way the is deeply personal and internal at the same time.

Attorney Street (Handball Court With Autobiographical Poem by Piñero),” dated 1982-84
[“Attorney Street (Handball Court With Autobiographical Poem by Piñero),” dated 1982-84.]

Sign language abounds in his work along with urban scenes. The sign language in the piece shown above, Attorney Street, Handball Court with Autobiographical Poem by Piñero, features a short poem by Miguel Piñero, the playwright and actor who was co-founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café. The piece and its subject also show the immersion of Wong, a Chinese American, in the Latino culture of the neighborhood, and his expression of his identity as a homosexual man – Piñero was both his collaborator and lover. The latter theme repeats frequency is works – most prominently in images of firemen – along with the sign language.

In contrast to his depictions of the Lower East Side, his paintings of Chinese American people and culture have a more quaint and nostalgic quality, whether illustrating Manhattan’s Chinatown or San Francisco. In these works, we see women for the first time. One particularly prominent piece featured a cheongsam-clad woman reminiscent of the sexually charged images of Asian women from the early 20th century. He did, however, marry his heritage to the contemporary urban world. In the piece shown below (and a much larger companion), the Chinese symbolism and astrology are combined with the brick facade of the urban landscape and an ominous black hole, perhaps a nod to the rising AIDS epidemic that eventually took his life.

Martin Wong
[Martin Wong]

(DE) (RE) CONSTRUCT brings together pieces from the museum’s permanent collection around the topic of design. Design covers a lot of territory, and there are pieces that explore both its small and large aspects. Liliana Porter’s Bird, Drawing, Model, Painting, Rip, Hand, 1982 deals with small objects and figures. The start white background gives it a somewhat lonely but simultaneously tender quality.

[Liliana Porter. Bird, Drawing, Model, Painting, Rip, Hand, 1982. Acrylic, pencil, silkscreen, collage. Gift of the artist]

Vito Acconci’s Building Blocks for a Doorway, goes in the other direction by focusing on architecture. The lettering is a fun detail, though, and I leave its interpretation as an exercise to the ready.

[Vito Acconci. Building Blocks for a Doorway, 1983-85. Five color etching. Each half 93 7/8″ x 47 1/4″. Edition of 8]

Acconci’s architectural spoke to me on a personal level, as did the far more minimalist Black Road by Glen Goldberg. Fun with highways…

[Glen Goldberg. Black Road]

And the most minimal of all was Elizabeth Jobim’s Red.

Elizabeth Jobim
[Elizabeth Jobim. Red]

Transitions: New Photography from Bangladesh brings together works from nine Bangladeshi and Bangladeshi-American photographs to interpret a country that is rapidly changing country that defies many long-held stereotypes. The Bronx happens to be home to a large community of Bangladeshi Americans. Many of the photographs were just portraits and landscapes, as well as some striking similarities with India. On the subcontinent, pointing out the similarities between the two countries would be politically charged, but as South Asian Americans we can freely observe them. Most of the portraits were relatively prosaic, but one that I particularly liked was Arfun Ahmed’s Olympia Burka which featured the artists’ wife and a relative is Muslim does. It a very timely statement given the conversation we are having in this country around Muslim-American identity and prejudice. Plus, it features a cat!

[Arfun Ahmed. Olympia Burka, 2014]

Debashish Chakrabarty’s photographs featuring streaks of light are abstract and energetic. The figures, when visible at all, are very much obscured in the dark background.

 Debashish Chakrabarty

The Bronx Museum of Arts has become a regular stop on my visits to New York, and I’m proud to see this institution grow and thrive in the borough to which I am most deeply connected. I look forward to more exhibitions in the future. Dare I even hope to play a show there someday?