Matthew Wong - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips

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  • Adored with abandon by the art world since his explosive ascent to auction in 2020, Matthew Wong’s The Road is marked by his virtuosic symphonies of pigment and rejection of tonal modelling in favour of autonomous fields of colour. Sharing in the Modernist conviction that the application of oil onto canvas could elicit intimate yet innovative forms of expression, his short career of only 7 years produced works that are lyrical, whimsical, cerebral but most importantly, sincere.


    Wong had a tenacious appetite for not just creative output – but its ceaseless improvement. On the eve of Dallas Art Fair 2017, his first fair in the US, Wong travelled down from his home in Edmonton, Canada. Often caught in the flurry of painting (not painting is pain, he once told a friend), he thought upon seeing the work that his New York gallery Karma had selected was, decidedly, imperfect.i While the fair flowed and ripened around him, Wong propped up a make-shift studio, stood in front of The West – every inch a classic representation of his practice – and wove constellations into its orphaned sky. 


    The anecdote, while often told, holds particular resonance and could be used as a mythology for Wong’s career: while the world tugged, pulled, and twisted around him, Wong painted and created at his own pace, his own prerogative – only ever sacrificing himself, for himself.



    A Feverish Melody


    Wong’s works are often punctured by solitary figures that are set adrift in the natural world; cropped against the cosmos’ psychodrama, they act not just as staffage but an entry point for the viewer into the artist’s chimerical dreams.


    Melancholy can often be the first word that comes to mind when we consider these figures (and therefore own our earthly position). A heavy emotion, doubtless. In the present lot, Wong grants mercy – his imperial thumb pointed firmly up; here we are presented with a shimmering landscape of incendiary autumnal hues that blanket the horizontal panes of canvas. The full force of his painterly ability burns through the composition while Wong’s use of pointillism is symphonic: trees are susurrous, canopies chant, mountains croon and the sun drums along. Like a seed each dot is planted with care and precision, growing into a lush forest of hues and tones that bloom with vitality and energy. His pointillism is not just a technique, but a language, a way of speaking to the viewer through the rhythms and melodies of colour and form.



    The current work posted on Jerry Saltz’s Twitter page, 2018.
    Artwork: © 2023 Matthew Wong Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York


    It’s easy to fall under The Road’s spell – just ask Jerry Saltz. Announcing his latest horoscope into the contemporary art world, the famed New York critic singled out the work on Twitter. As part of his Vulture review of Wong’s breakout show at Karma Gallery in 2018, Saltz waxed lyrical: ‘Matthew Wong’s show at Karma is one of the most impressive solo New York debuts I’ve seen in a while…Wong brings a focused flickering tightness and absorbing intensity to his paintings, something closer to the talismanic delights of Grandma Moses or, on the hazier side, Vuillard…What really makes Wong his own painter is his preternatural feel for pattern; every painted area becomes a graphic field that allows us to see changing shapes and luminosities, allowing a consciousness of otherness to settle into the work’ ii.


    Despite the verve that bristles through the work, its autumnal essence deserves some reflection. The passage into winter has always endowed to man a period of inflection; as the world around us shrivels and retreats, our own transience is given a vibrant stage. Shakespeare duly once wrote: 


    “That time of year thou mayst in me behold
    When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
    Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
    Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
    In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
    As after sunset fadeth in the west;
    Which by and by black night doth take away,
    Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
    In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
    That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
    As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
    Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by”   
    — William Shakespeare,Excerpt from Sonnet 73 


    The Road similarly alludes to these sentiments. At the foot of the composition, the forest’s fugitive forms relinquish their dynamism and bleed into the dominating sash of turquoise. A red path meanders through the oblivion’s deforestation, but this too seems at risk of being swallowed up, menacing the painting’s resolution.



    Artist Interrupted 


    Wong knew what it meant to be unrooted from the world; he would flit between his birthplace and Toronto for much of his childhood before settling in Hong Kong after studying in the States. Professional life would prove difficult as he bounced around white-collar jobs, unable to settle down and carve out a career in ‘Asia’s global city’. Neither local (his Cantonese was only passable) nor expat and without friends, he turned to poetry as a release and a calling before taking up photography and then painting.


    “I do believe that there is an inherent loneliness or melancholy in 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

    The wild exuberance that would come to lie at the core of his work was tempered by the artist’s inner turmoil. Diagnosed with depression, Tourette’s Syndrome and autism, Wong struggled with his mental health throughout his life, a conflict that his mother has spoken of candidly: ‘He would just tell me, “you know, Mom, my mind, I’m fighting with the Devil every single day, every waking moment of my life”’ iii.


    In early October 2019, Wong would lose this fight, and take his life. He was 35 and on the cusp of immortality. 



    Reverential Reflections


    In the art world, we’re quick to lavish, aggrandise, and sensationalise. As such, the life of an aesthete is one of indulgence; providing ample alimentation, the trials of a troubled artist are perversely (somewhat inevitably) fashioned into heroic poses, à la Basquiat or Van Gogh.


    To understand the work of Matthew Wong is naturally to understand the artist – the person – he was when he created these. However, to celebrate the work of Matthew Wong, we would do well to divert our attention away from an infatuation with yet another tortured creative and instead focus on the qualities of his oeuvre that do warrant our infatuation: its vivacity; singular vision; and honest dialogues between pigment, canvas, and the innumerable generations of artists that came before him.


    A child of the modern age, he was completely self-taught, taking to Facebook to further his education and engaging in lengthy debates with figures like gallery owner John Cheim and artist Paul Behnke. This fascinating journey to becoming an artist makes his works all the more absorbing, while underlining the exceptional intuition of a practice that was unbound by traditional teachings and institutional formation.


    For Wong, painting was nothing if not cathartic – a primordial mediation between material and self. Ignited by the work of Abstract Expressionist Bill Jensen, he would almost let the paint apply itself, guided by its own hand and letting pictorial order incubate within chromatic disorder, Listening to John Coltrane’s seminal 1966 album, Meditations, on repeat, Wong allow the abstracted notes of free-jazz to whip him into a frenzy: ‘I may just pick a few colours at hand and squeeze them onto the surface, blindly making marks, but at a certain point I will inexplicably get a very fleeting glimpse of what the image I may finally arrive at will be, sort of like a hallucination.’ i. His paintings became his reality as pareidolia kicked in, his life conjuring a mirage of pigment.



    Spannocchia Luohan I, 2017
    Artwork: © Bill Jensen 2023. Courtesy of Cheim & Read

    “I’d like to think of my art practice as an open-ended dialogue between myself and other painters, both living and dead.”
    — Matthew Wong

    While favouring oil, Wong used ink throughout his career, often as a kind of subtle meditation. Some of his first forays into art involved the use of ink having been inspired by traditional Chinese works and Christopher Wool’s Rorschach paintings: ‘I just bought a cheap sketch pad, along with a bottle of ink, and made a mess every day in my bathroom randomly pouring ink onto pages—smashing them together—hoping something interesting was going to come out of it’ iv.


    A 2021 posthumous exhibition at Cheim & Read explored the influence of the legacy of Chinese landscape painting on Wong’s work; critic Dawn Chan induced in the show’s catalogue: ‘We know that Wong specifically fixed his attention on the art of Shitao, as well as those of his [Shitao’s] contemporary, Bada Shanren. Both artists were famous for pushing the envelope in their work — for moving ink painting towards surprising moments of expressive abstraction. Their influence is deeply integrated in Wong’s own works. Wong maintained a committed ink-art practice, making an ink painting every morning. Painting immediately after waking, before food or coffee, he experimented boldly with the medium, pouring paint and letting it pool on the page’ v.



    Bada Shanren, Landscape after Guo Zhongshu, c.1650 – 1705
    Cleveland Museum of Art
    Image: Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund

    Much of what has been written about Wong thus far has been focused on the perceived affinity with Western artists, almost as a kind of deference (as per Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith). Though what might seem more accurate is a highly sensitive attempt to recognise Western artistic tendencies through an East Asian lens. Chinese landscape would have indeed provided an accessible template with which Wong could explore the human condition within the psychology of nature. Moreover, the flatness of Chinese landscape would have afforded a striking conjunction of pictorial dimensions with Wong’s impasto and tactile use of paint.


    A conversation study of The West at last year’s Dallas Museum of Art retrospective revealed that, as with many other paintings, Wong reused and repainted canvasses several times over. This attention – dedication – to mark making further places himself alongside Chinese rather than Western artists. An essential aspect of Classical Chinese art, mark making is an expression of the artist’s individuality and creativity within the confines of the traditional techniques and subject matter. Each brushstroke is deliberate and purposeful, creating a sense of harmony and balance in the composition. The technique of using ink and brush to create subtle variations of light and shadow, known as “qi yun sheng dong” or “spirit resonance, rhythm, and movement” is considered fundamental. Wong was not alone in breathing new life into the tradition of mark making, with the esteemed Cai Guo-Qiang similarly placing focus on the beauty of the final product through instinctive emotional output.


    Cai Guo-Qiang, Mountain Range, 2006
    Courtesy of Cai Studio

    By incorporating these irrevocable forms and shapes, Wong not only spoke to his cultural and artistic heritage, but to a confidence that at times caveated his fragile practice. With a swagger he once called his paintings ‘sheer, genuine acts of will’ i before his first solo show. For a man so deeply in touch with and affected by the world around him, the bravado could not last.


    In Paris’ Pere Lachaise Cemetery, the tombstone of the great Amedeo Modigliani reads, ‘Struck down by death in the moment of glory’; on Wong’s, a line from one of his poems is inscribed: ‘I am that which is idle on a summer day. I am the mouth that does not move’.



    Collector’s Digest


    • Wong’s works reside in notable public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Dallas Museum of Art; Estée Lauder Collection, New York; and the Aïshti Foundation, Beirut.

    • Continuing the momentum around the artist’s acclaim, the Dallas Museum of Art hosted Wong’s first museum retrospective in the United States, Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances, late 2022, and the exhibition had just closed 19 February, 2023. This was also on the heels of the painter’s institutional debut, Matthew Wong: Blue View, which took place at the Art Gallery of Ontario from August 2021 to April 2022. 



    i Raffi Khatchadourian, Matthew Wong’s Life in Light and Shadow, The New Yorker, 9 May 2022, online

    ii Jerry Saltz,’Losing Myself in the Paintings of Facebook-Educated Matthew Wong’, Vulture, 19 April 2018, online

    iii Monita Wong, quoted by Neil Genzlinger in ‘Matthew Wong, Painter on Cusp of Fame, Dies at 35’, New York Times, October 2019

    iv Matthew Wong, quoted in Elaine Wong, “They Are Artists: Matthew Wong,” Altermodernists, October 29, 2014, online.

    v Dawn Chan, ‘Matthew Wong: Footprints in the Wind’, Cheim & Read, 2021

    • Condition Report

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    • Description

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    • Provenance

      Karma Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Karma Gallery, Matthew Wong, 22 March - 29 April 2018, p. 90 (illustrated, p. 91)

    • Literature

      John Martin Tilley, 'Scenery from the Subconscious', Office Magazine, 26 March 2018, online

    • Artist Biography

      Matthew Wong

      Matthew Wong was a Canadian artist who enjoyed growing acclaim for his lush, dreamlike scenes that play on a rich tradition of art historical precedents. His work depicts the vivid but often melancholy terrain between sleep and wakefulness, lonely landscapes and isolated interiors rendered with a carefree hand and an ebullient palette, yet which contain an ineffable sorrow and a palpable but unnamed longing.  

      Wong spent his childhood between cultures: he was born in Toronto, Canada and at age 7 moved with his family to Hong Kong where he lived until he was 15, at which time the family returned to Canada. Wong began to experiment artistically already well into his adulthood, first with photography, which he pursued at the postgraduate level at the City University of Hong Kong, and then with painting. A self-taught painter, Wong developed his aptitude for the medium by immersing himself in online conversations with other artists and dedicated personal study of the history of art. His paintings attracted almost immediate attention, but Wong tragically passed away in 2019 just as his work was beginning to receive widespread critical praise.  

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The Road

signed, titled and dated '"THE ROAD" Wong 2018 [in Chinese]' on the reverse
oil on canvas
177.8 x 152.4 cm. (70 x 60 in.)
Painted in 2018.

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HK$24,000,000 - 35,000,000 

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20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023