Life in Light and Shadow by Matthew Wong

Wong harbored growing apprehension about his job. He knew his abstractions were good, but also that they weren’t particularly distinguishable from the abstractions of countless other artists. He considered the praise he had received online as “a heartwarming mirage”. For an untrained painter desperately far from New York, Facebook was essential, but he feared it was also an invitation to mediocrity, a “love party in a kind of dead end.”

The alternating currents of insecurity and confidence became a propelling force in Wong’s creative life. After the exhibition in Zhongshan, he contacted Shear. “How do you get on board with one of the various factions of rising thirty-somethings on the global art scene today?” He asked. “It looks like they’re all going up together. No one rides alone anymore.

From southern China, however, the only way for Wong to advance was alone. He told Shear he was going to change his approach to painting. The problem with Abstract Expressionism, he said, was that few could tell whether it was good or bad. He wanted to use symbolic imagery, to play with figuration. He reworked some old pieces; in one, he scratched the silhouette of two people. “Ugliness executed with finesse seems to go down well,” he told Shear. “The late Picasso is always good to come back for that.”

Wong’s paintings became stranger, coarser. Strange shapes – semi-organic shapes, with wandering folds and flat hammered curves – assumed an unlikely congruence. They first appeared in his Morning Ink Exercises, which began to grow into substantial works in their own right. (After his death, they became the subject of a show in New York.)

Wong lost followers who were attached to his earlier work. But important fans remained. When he posted a painting in this new vein on Facebook, he received a glowing response from John Cheim, whose gallery, Cheim & Read, represented several accomplished artists. In the painting, called “Memento,” a dark, twisted mass stood against a yellow background, resembling cracked earth. There was anguish and fury in the central form, with some features legible – a face partly obscured by disheveled hair, prison nets – and others that were not. It wasn’t necessarily a museum piece, but it was fine, and people on Facebook said so.

He was wondering how to move his work forward. “Painting a good piece doesn’t dull anything,” he wrote to Shear. “First thought: ‘Ken I doo eet agen?’ ”

“Hehe I fight too,” Shear wrote.

“Everybody mourns the greatest track ever,” Wong said. “It’s actually the worst feeling in the world lol. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in ether signs. Stuff like that is sobering. It says to one, ‘Now imagine if you were a top-notch artist – that feeling is magnified and intensified a thousand times over every time you pick up a brush.’ ”

Wong was learning in public, creating and posting images at lightning speed. “It was shocking to see how every day he kept taking leaps and bounds in his work,” Dutcher, the Los Angeles painter, told me. But Wong sometimes published plays before they were even finished, and the quality varied. When a well-known artist suggested he slow down, he was irritated. Terrified that Brooklyn painters might make fun of him, he obsessively deleted images of paintings he had reworked, telling Shear, “I feel like I’m pretty exposed to the winds right now, just a weird shiver down my spine.”

In October 2015, Monita helped Wong organize a three-day exhibition at a government-run art center in Hong Kong. He filled the space with forty pieces, and this time with many more friends. We threw him an after-party. It was Wong’s first real exhibition. The location was not important, but he sold his paintings, which provided him with some money to make more art.

Afterwards, Monita told me, Matthew fell into another deep depression. It’s not entirely clear why. Around this time, according to a friend, he learned that his ex-girlfriend was engaged. In response, he painted all night. He once confessed to another artist that Monita had scolded him: “You’ll never have a girlfriend. Nobody can please you. You are a prince. Monita says she kept a pragmatic attitude – she told him that, given his difficulties, he should never have children – but hoped he would find a wife.

For months, the depression did not subside. “It’s pretty pervasive in my life right now,” Wong told Shear in January. “I don’t even really want to fight or resist this darkness. The weird and perverse part is that I paint in the middle of it all. Even if my attitude is futile, the game continues.

Monita took Matthew to America for a stay of several months – an escape, a quest for momentum. Shear had hosted a joint show for them, called “Good Bad Brush”, in Washington State. Matthew and Monita also visited Texas, Michigan, Los Angeles and New York. While traveling, Wong made art every day. But, even though his surroundings changed, his melancholy remained. He barely earned any money, and his oil paintings and canvases remained in China. “I feel really bad, I’m shaking and shit,” he told Shear. “Walk two steps then I feel nauseous and dizzy.

While visiting a friend in Edmonton, Monita decided they would stay, believing Matthew would benefit from the Canadian healthcare system. Put on a waiting list to see a therapist, he continues to seek relief through ink drawings, watercolors, gouaches on paper. A few weeks later, Shear shared a painting from his studio. “Very good,” Wong said. “In the middle of an anxiety attack.” Twenty minutes later, Shear checked it out. “I’m fine,” Wong assured him. “I just did a painting.”

Two years after Wong was inspired by paintings from the Venice Biennale, the curator of the exhibition presented a curious artifact, called “The Encyclopedic Palace”. It was an eleven-foot-tall architectural model, built in the 1950s by an auto mechanic in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (“The Mushroom Capital of the World”). Building the structure had taken years of haunting labor – in wood, brass, celluloid, hair combs – in hopes that it would inspire a museum on the National Mall that would house all of human knowledge. Instead, it languished for twenty-two years in a storage locker in Delaware, until it was transferred to the American Folk Art Museum. The exhibition at the Biennale caused a sensation and the art world reacted. “Outsider” artists are beginning to appear more and more frequently in galleries and museums.

The term “art brut” is almost impossible to define, but its origins date back to a trip that Jean Dubuffet took to Switzerland, in 1945, to visit psychiatric hospitals, in search of art made by patients. He called what he found “Art Brut“: “outsider art”, which was “created out of loneliness and pure, genuine creative impulses – where worries of competition, acclaim and social advancement do not interfere”.

In this sense, Wong was and was not a foreign artist. He had a master’s degree in fine arts, but he had taught himself to paint. He worked under duress, but he also cultivated an audience and a community of peers. He was caught between East and West: he had said one day: “I’m trying to see where I can fit into the equation of Chinese painting”, but he was above all seeking to enter the world of New York art.

From Zhongshan, Wong wrote to Shear, “Technically, I’m a foreign artist. Are you?”

“I never got my test results,” Shear wrote.

“Just not very rough,” Wong replied. “lol.”

While searching for a way to show in New York, Wong discovered White Columns, a nonprofit space specializing in artists who are not officially represented. On John Cheim’s recommendation, he submitted images of six paintings by e-mail, with a request to hold an exhibition. Two hours later, the director, Matthew Higgs, responded. He explained that White Columns was booked until next year, but was holding a group show in September 2016 for an East Village gallery called Karma. Focusing on landscapes, the show was titled “Outside” – “as in ‘the outside’, but also to allude to an ‘outsider’ aesthetic/attitude/spirit”. He invited Wong to include two of his paintings. One depicted a naked man, possibly Narcissus, looking into a pond; the other depicted a man on a rock masturbating in front of a woman. Rendered in acrylic, they had the raw but honest figuration of an untrained painter.

James C. Tibbs