The luscious dots and meticulously placed dabs of Matthew Wong’s Figure in a Night Landscape are emblematic of the artist’s extraordinary oeuvre that has enchanted audiences around the world. Wong pours his impastoed landscapes from his soul, drawing upon intuition and memory in creating his imaginary worlds of sparkling wooded forests or rolling hills that appear to expand out from the canvas indefinitely. This nocturnal scene demonstrates Wong’s desire to capture a specific, familiar time of day in his work, beautifully capturing the ghostly essence of a forest in the middle of the night. The solitary figure, a common motif of his work, standing alone at the centre of a dark expanse, arouses feelings of isolation that provide insight into the consciousness of the artist and his particular experience of the world, tragically passing in October of 2019.
Figure in a Night Landscape is a significant work to come to auction: one of his early nightscapes that was featured in his monumental KARMA debut, which was his first solo show in New York and marked a pivotal moment for the artist that effectively launched his career. Described by Jerry Saltz, reviewing Wong’s exhibition for Vulture magazine in April 2018, as ‘one of the most impressive solo New York debuts’ that he had ‘seen in a while’,i this present lot is one of only seven canvas works displayed at Wong’s groundbreaking introduction to the art world. Significantly, Wong later turned to painting night scenes for his second, posthumous show, Blue, enamoured by the emotional power of depicting landscapes at night.
Figure in a Night Landscape evokes the utter quietude of a forest at midnight, bathed in the ghostly pale light of an incandescent moon that is out of view. Wong is unparalleled in his ability to depict landscapes at a specific moment in time, from daybreak to dawn, and as portrayed here, the middle of the night. The moonlight illuminates the scene, reflecting off the glistening leaves of the spindly network of trees, evocative of the long and thin forms of birch trees that are found clustered together. The ground is a vital, shimmering bed of leaves that have fallen from the surrounding trees, evocative of Yayoi Kusama’s dynamic nets, such as Lot 25 - Yayoi Kusama, Nets Obsession (2004), that visibly sways due to the fluctuating tonality of its intricate lattice structure.
Wong majestically captures the richness of this detritus, or forest floor, its undulations caught by the cold moonlight. The ground is perceptibly thick, made up of decomposing leaves and branches that lie just above the black soil of the forest landscape, and we can imagine the sounds of rustling and squelching emitting from under the hooded figure’s footsteps as they glide through the nightscape.
Wong creates an interesting perspective in Figure in a Night Landscape, as the viewer is both above the dense web of tree-tops looking in, and also invited into the scene by simultaneously being placed within the woods. This horizontal landscape is reminiscent of the flattened landscapes of Chinese literati ink drawings of the Song dynasty, in which small figures were delicately placed in landscapes that appeared to rise on top of each other. In this way, the viewer, like the lone figure at the centre of the painting, is absorbed in the surrounding sea of splendid lines and dots, hypnotised by the imaginary world of the artist. Overall, despite the myriad of dots and brushstrokes, this night scene is not chaotic, and there is a distinctive calmness to the work, imbued with a palpable yearning for something that is not in view.
“The hesitant, solitary figure placed in most of his landscapes is not sure where he is going, and appears paused between finding a footing and falling adrift in the undefined territory of form.”
— Winnie Wong
The small figure is a favoured motif in Wong’s oeuvre of glittering landscapes, and here, a hooded figure in red immediately draws the viewer into the heart of the painting. As stated by Will Heinrich in his New York Times review of Wong’s KARMA gallery debut in 2018, these figures are ‘psychologically and formally crucial’, providing a focal point in the composition and imbuing the work with an emotional depth.ii In regards to the present work, John Martin Tilley for Office Magazine, likened this scarlet figure to ‘Riding Hood’,iii supporting the truly fantastical and fictional feel of this painting, as if a depiction of a scene from an old fairy tale such as “Little Red Riding Hood”. As with “Little Red Riding Hood”, the viewer senses an unseen danger, a “Big Bad Wolf'' lurking in the hidden depths. Further, like most of Wong’s other works that include his small wandering pilgrim, the painting evokes feelings of isolation and the idea of being lost.
“I do believe that 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.”
— Matthew Wong
This hooded figure is swamped in an engulfing landscape, standing amongst a storm of dazzling dots and dashes that threaten to consume the individual, a figure that John Yau has described as a ‘surrogate’ for the artist himself who is ‘both embedded in the paint and having a dialog with it’.iv Unique to this work, however, is the lack of path, a common feature of Wong’s oeuvre as seen in Lot 9 - Matthew Wong - Untitled (PILGRIM), 2017, and thus the viewer is left with no indication as to where the lone figure is coming from or going to.
Also particular to this work is the body language of the figure, seemingly standing front-on, looking out at the viewer, a pale face peeking out from under its hood. Its presence is striking, recalling the loosely depicted figures of Norwegian expressionist artist, Edvard Munch, and the ghostly screaming protagonist in his most famous work, The Scream (1893). Overall, there is something touchingly mournful about this painting, permeated with an undeniable dream quality that is an emotional insight into the world and mind of the artist.
“I am a bit of an omnivore for sights, sounds and ideas and am always on the lookout for perspectives I had not considered before. But to name a few artists whose lives and work I think about often and keep going back to: Edvard Munch, Shitao, Xu Wei, Lee Lozano, Vincent Van Gogh, Eleanor Ray, Andrei Tarkovsky, Brenda Goodman, Lois Dodd, Alex Katz, Kanye West, Louise Bourgeois, On Kawara, Yayoi Kusama, Scott Kahn, and Marsden Hartley, among others.”
— Matthew Wong
The myriad of artistic influences on the work of Matthew Wong has been frequently discussed, and paintings such as Figure in a Night Landscape exquisitely exemplify the rich impact that a diverse range of people and artworks have had on his oeuvre. In regards to the Western canon, the work of Dutch post-impressionist painter, Vincent Van Gogh, is immediately comparable, sharing with Wong’s paintings the sumptuously textured surface of shimmering short brushstrokes that dance across the canvas.
In the famous, The Starry Night (1889), Van Gogh depicts a moon and star strewn night sky, dabs of paint swirling around in a turbulent manner, pirouetting around the glowing concentric orbs of stars. However, while the source of light is conspicuous within The Starry Night, Wong’s nocturnal scene, Figure in a Night Landscape powerfully depicts the moment of penumbra, a space of partial illumination, capturing the deep shadow of night that has been interrupted by the moon’s gleam which swathes the leaves of the forest in a cool embrace. Wong was fascinated by this time when light crosses over to dark, focusing his attention on the “blueness of blue” in his later works that were exhibited at KARMA gallery from 8 November 2019 to 5 January 2020 in his second solo show, Blue.
Wong has also been compared to the Austrian Symbolist artist, Gustav Klimt, whose kaleidoscopic, tapestry-like paintings evoke Wong’s lusciously full surfaces and ability to enchant and dazzle the viewer. For example, in Klimt’s The Sunflower (1907), the artist adopts a similar distorted perspective as Wong’s bucolic scenes, setting the central flower against the backdrop of a thick wall of sumptuous foliage. Like the fallen leaves of Figure in a Night Landscape, the leaves in The Sunflower (1907) seem to shimmer and murmur under the gentle caress of moonlight that bathes the image from an unknown source. Klimt’s painting comes alive through a sort of patchwork of pointillist dabs and intricate flowers, similar to the undulating sea of lively brushwork in Figure in a Night Landscape.
While the influence of Chinese landscape ink wash literati painting has been commented upon in regards to his manipulation of perspective, John Yau, in his review ‘Matthew Wong’s Hallucinatory Pilgrimages’ published by Hyperallergic magazine in April 2018, compellingly discussed the similarities of Wong’s oil canvases, particularly Figure in a Night Landscape, to the ‘incised surface of [Asian] lacquerware’.iv The intricate carvings typical of the high-Yuan dynasty style, as seen in Tray with women and boys on a garden terrace (14th century), are rich examples of decorative, patterned surfaces that may indeed have inspired the meticulous works of Wong. Again, it is interesting to consider the use of perspective in these early examples of carved Chinese lacquerware, similar to Wong in his disregard of traditional perspective and his striking placement of little figures in his rolling landscapes.
Tray with women and boys on a garden terrace, 14th century
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Adored by people and critics across the globe, Wong’s soulful work has achieved extraordinary results at auction, testament to the power of paintings such as Figure in a Night Landscape to strike an emotional chord in the viewer. As discussed, his first solo show, Matthew Wong, at KARMA gallery in New York in 2018 was an uncommon triumph for such a newcomer, and his second show, Blue, the following year was also an unassailable success. Running through to the beginning of this year, a selection of postcards were shown at ARCH Athens, as part of the exhibition Postcards (10 September 2020 - 9 January 2021), an exhibition of twenty imagined and remembered landscapes on paper, which was originally planned to accompany his summer residency in Greece. The compelling work of Matthew Wong is highly sought-after, and will be remembered for centuries to come in the canons of art history.
In 2018, the writer and curator Maria Vogel interviewed Matthew Wong about his inspirations, process, and melancholic paintings.
Maria Vogel: There are hints of melancholy in your work which often features a lone figure. Do you intend for your paintings to be interpreted in this way?
Matthew Wong: Living a fairly reclusive life and finding the most stimulation and enjoyment from matters of the mind, be they following the natural path of my imagination or watching films in the dark of my living room, an activity which is a part of my routine I pursue every night without fail, it’s inevitable that the solitary nature of this pattern seeps into and informs my work. That said, I would like my paintings to have something in them people across the spectrum can find things they identify with. I do believe that 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.
MV: What source imagery do you use for your work? Are the scenes thought up on your own or do they come from a reference?
MW: There isn’t any source material I keep on hand in the studio, just a mental database of art I have seen or impressions from day to day life, conversations, and so on. Instagram is great for looking at art, even as it’s no substitute for the real thing. Being so far out in Edmonton, Canada, which is where I live, social media is still the next best option for keeping myself in touch with what other artists are doing.
MV: Where do you think your work fits in dialogue with artists who came before you?
MW: I have not really thought much about my place in the histories and lineages of painting. This may sound a bit idealistic, but I really would like to think that anybody out there painting or drawing something at the moment is engaging in the same larger, perhaps infinitely vast conversation as I am about the craft.
Read the rest of the interview here.