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Solomon Adler on Martin Wong’s Eureka Years

Solomon Adler on Martin Wong’s Eureka Years

Solomon Adler on Martin Wong’s Eureka Years

IN A RICKETY WOOD-FRAME BUILDING close to Eureka, California, alongside a slough that results in Humboldt Bay, there’s a self-portrait by Martin Wong. He left it unfinished—a fast acrylic underpainting in shades of blue. It reveals the artist cross-legged and palms open, some contours so faint they disappear into the canvas. The portray’s floor is barely buckled from publicity to the fog that rolls over the area, rusting steel, peeling away home paint, and activating blooms of mould. Its slight weathering makes it seem at residence among the many different relics (retired buoys, milk-stand indicators) {that a} native antiquarian has assembled inside. All through Eureka, one finds comparable locations with comparable issues. The town has develop into a repository for the deserted and the worn away.

This destiny was what drew Wong to Eureka. “I bear in mind the primary time I noticed Outdated City, it was so fantastically desolate,” he mentioned in 1977. “It was actually what I at all times imagined what America could be like.”1 Many individuals affiliate Wong together with his time in New York Metropolis, the place he romanticized an identical desolation within the crumbling brick tenements of the Decrease East Facet. However from 1973 till 1978, he savored a extra provincial air of neglect within the Outdated City industrial district of Eureka.2 It epitomized for him a nationwide situation of abrasion—a situation to which work like his self-portrait have been in the end consigned.

Wong was a part of a wave of artists and hippies who moved northward from the San Francisco Bay Space after California’s countercultural explosion within the late Sixties and early ’70s. Some have been galvanized by the back-to-the-land motion and carved out communes within the countryside. Others settled close to the faculty city of Arcata, residence of Wong’s alma mater, Humboldt State Faculty (now California State Polytechnic College, Humboldt). However Wong made the much less common resolution to reside in Eureka amongst a motley solid of artists, fishermen, potters, and loggers. The town was by and enormous the protect of a working-class neighborhood on the ebb. Many residents have been former lumbermen who had migrated from the American inside to raze the area’s redwoods and Douglas firs. By the ’70s, the depletion of previous progress had contributed to the closure of most sawmills, and an growing older workforce discovered itself residing out its golden years on slim pensions. The town grew to become what John Rotter, Wong’s buddy and collaborator, known as a “sea of disenfranchised individuals.”3

Martin Wong, Weatherby’s, 1974, acrylic on canvas, 21 × 35". © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

MUCH OF WONG’S WORK captures the remnants of Eureka’s final logging growth within the Fifties, notably its eateries, taverns, and service provider outposts. Weatherby’s, a portray from 1974, takes its identify from a diner alongside Route 101, which snakes via the middle of downtown. Dominating the scene is one among Wong’s favourite “cheesy neon” indicators, that includes a crab with flashing pincers.4 Throughout the street, the Thunderbird Lodge advertises “COLOR TV,” whereas a pink 1958 Chevrolet Impala loiters within the foreground. Route 101 extends towards the horizon line, assembly a darkened sky. The town’s institutions appear like approach stations on the course of obsolescence.

Wong’s Eureka years inaugurated a type of social semirealism that may proceed for a lot of his profession. However his engagement with town ran deeper. He illustrated calendars for Fog’s, a bar and venue, and drew profit flyers for the Humboldt Youngster Care Council and the Outdated City Enterprise and Cultural Affiliation. He designed menus for Peggy’s diner and enterprise playing cards for dentist Dr. Robert Berg. He labored as a courtroom artist in the course of the corruption trial of Sheriff Gene Cox, producing drawings that appeared within the pages of the Instances-Customary newspaper. When native band Freddy and the Starliners sought an artist for his or her album cowl, Wong was chosen for his “homegrown” status.5 It was as if he had sprouted from the Humboldt soil, regardless of having been born in Portland, Oregon, and raised in San Francisco (Eureka is a well-liked pit cease for these driving between the 2 cities).

Martin Wong menu design and illustration for Peggy’s diner, 1977. © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

Amongst his neighbors and artwork historians alike, Wong is probably greatest identified for operating a portrait enterprise out of Chirimoya, a showroom and studio for a collective of artisans. Advertising and marketing himself because the “Human Instamatic,” he supplied on-the-spot likenesses for modest charges. Customary pencil portraits usually took mere minutes; he allegedly drew 5 hundred in 1977 alone.6 Wong didn’t at all times await his sitters to solicit his providers. He supplied drawings in commerce—for meals at Tomaso’s pizzeria, for instance, or dental remedy on the workplace of Dr. Berg (acquired instantly following the completion of the physician’s portrait). These forays, like his menus and handbills, scattered traces of the artist all through the area. Eurekans wanted not search him out; his artwork would invariably discover them.

In Eureka, Wong reworked himself into a neighborhood character and, in his personal phrases, a manifest “nation boy.”7 When he first moved there, his every day uniform consisted of a white denim jacket and matching trousers. The outfit signaled his immersion in San Francisco’s counterculture, from whose mystical idealism he took inspiration. However only one yr later, a self-portrait reveals him in a leather-based jacket and limp Stetson, paraphernalia to match that of the hinterlanders who drew his (usually erotic) fascination. In the course of the ’70s, Wong would lead a double life, touring again to San Francisco for morsels of bohemia after which returning to what he known as “unhappy and exquisite” Eureka.8 His new guise, nevertheless, endured—even via his time in New York, the place associates remembered him as a “vamping cowboy” who added glitter and graffiti to a “persona that’s extra American than apple pie.”9

Martin Wong, untitled, ca. 1974–75, acrylic on canvas, artist’s frame, 15 × 17 1⁄4". © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

Eureka epitomized for Wong a nationwide situation of abrasion—a situation to which a lot of his works have been in the end fated.

His most definitive ode to Eureka is present in a self-published guide of drawings from 1976, merely titled Eureka, which catalogues the locations the place residents gathered in earlier eras. Tales abound of unruly miners in the course of the gold rush, lumberjacks in the course of the Nice Despair, and sailors between the World Wars clogging the roadhouses and avenue corners that crop up all through the guide. In its introduction, native reporter John Ross describes Wong’s predilection for “the storefronts and saloons fronting this hunk of town,” locations as soon as “alive with hotshot spenders, burly loggers and mustachioed hookers, drunks, gamblers, bikers, brawlers, sailors, Indians, cowboys, cops, and various different highrolling lowlivers.”10Eureka affords the afterimages of this exuberance. Derelict practice yards and literal piles of rubble slip in between portraits of associates and acquaintances. Two pages are reserved for the Vance Resort, constructed by lumber baron John Vance in 1872 and a crowning instance of the Victorian structure that attended the area’s financial ascent (the Carson Home, constructed by rival baron William Carson, stays a vacationer attraction). Wong’s drawings attest to the Vance Resort’s subsequent decline. One reveals a hallway of lurching partitions and doorframes that bulge as if saturated with water. The opposite reveals the foyer, the place a person cradles his head in his palms whereas a tv drones within the background. We appear to see as the person does, misplaced in a haze, his connection to the broader world distant and vague. The Vance, because it was identified, turns into the architectural husk of a as soon as pulsing civic physique.

Martin Wong, Vance Hotel, 1976, graphite on paper, 10 ¾ × 14". From Eureka, 1976. © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

The historical past of the Chinese language in Eureka—with out landmarks, buried in its sediment—hovers over Wong’s depictions of town.

MUCH HAS BEEN FORGOTTEN about Wong’s time in Eureka, regardless of rising curiosity in his work. In recent times, his work of city life in New York in the course of the ’80s have develop into fixtures of museum shows. The intersection of Wong’s homosexuality, his Chinese language ancestry, and his representations of Puerto Ricans has supplied a brand new lens via which to view this seemingly well-trodden interval. Nevertheless, different layers of his work at the moment are within the technique of excavation. Marci Kwon has introduced consideration to Wong’s early years in San Francisco, together with his phantasmagorical set designs for the “acid drag” efficiency troupe the Angels of Gentle.11 P.P.O.W Gallery in New York and Galerie Buchholz in Berlin have each mounted exhibitions that includes ceramic sculptures the artist made throughout his pupil years. “Martin Wong: Malicious Mischief,” an exhibition initiated by the KW Institute for Up to date Artwork in Berlin and curated by Krist Gruijthuijsen and Agustín Pérez Rubio, begins its European tour this month on the Museo Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo close to Madrid. It guarantees to articulate the hyperlinks between Wong’s New York years and his time in California. Different efforts by Mark Dean Johnson have introduced ahead his dialogue with the historical past of Chinese language artwork, which started within the ’60s and continued to tell the remainder of his work.12 However Wong’s Eureka years display that the floor has solely been scratched. A digital catalogue raisonné hosted by Stanford College was only in the near past revealed.13 With greater than eight hundred artworks, this freely accessible useful resource gives the primary alternative to exhume what stays of hitherto sidelined our bodies of labor, together with roughly fifty items that inform the story of his time in Eureka.

The output of those years at first seems inconsistent with the remainder of his art work. A lot of Wong’s topics in Humboldt have been white hippies and fishermen, far faraway from the ethnic enclaves and syncretisms celebrated in his later work. However the historical past of the Chinese language in Eureka—with out landmarks, buried in its sediment—was not misplaced on him. Chinese language migrants got here to the area in the course of the gold rush however have been relegated to the tailings already mined by white prospectors. In 1885, a white metropolis council member was killed within the cross hearth between two rival Chinese language teams. In an act of mob retaliation, white settlers rounded up greater than 200 Chinese language residents, tracked down many who tried to flee, and compelled them onto two steamships sure for San Francisco. Gallows and effigies have been placed on show to intimidate those that may resist. Inside two days, all of the Chinese language residents of Eureka have been gone, banished in a swift and systemic act of ethnic cleaning that grew to become often called the “Eureka Methodology.”14 Within the mid-’80s, Wong proposed a mural to commemorate this episode. Though the undertaking was by no means realized, it will have proven Chinese language exiles aboard a vessel in a picture harking back to Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

Martin Wong, Vance Hotel Hallway, 1976, graphite on paper, 10 3⁄4 × 14". From Eureka, 1976. © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

In Eureka, this misplaced neighborhood hovers over Wong’s depictions of town. On the guide’s title web page, he stamped two Chinese language seals in conventional purple cinnabar ink. Translating these characters proves tough. Their archaic clerical script has puzzled some nicely versed within the language, however pooled knowledge has helped decipher the bigger block as Kuang yi zhi xiang—the “aroma” or “taste” of the “loopy and unusual.”15 The interpretation tracks with a line from Wong’s early poem “Psycic Bandits” (ca. 1972), written in wild calligraphy on a vertical scroll: glistening secret of the strangest taste. These Chinese language characters reappear throughout Eureka’s pages, accompanying the distortions and hyperdetailed surfaces that remodel town right into a surreal panorama. The impact is uncanny, or, extra exactly, unheimlich—actually “unhomely” in German. It turns town that Wong known as his “front room” into a spot each acquainted and unusual.16 The Vance Resort turns into unheimliche Haus—a haunted home, suffused with the ghosts of Eureka’s previous.

Wong’s specific pressure of psychedelia was induced by a high quality he known as the “melty.”

One remembers that Wong conveyed an identical estrangement when he described Eureka as “what I at all times imagined what America could be like.” His phrases appear to belong to somebody coming to this nation from the skin. However Wong was born in america, and his mom, Florence Fie, like a lot of his associates, described him as a quintessential American. Works like Eureka present the artist viewing his place of birth from with out. As he advised a neighborhood reporter in 1975, “Generally it helps to have the ability to step out of a tradition, to view it from the skin for some time. Issues stand out which you didn’t discover earlier than as a result of they have been too prosaic, too extraordinary.”17 Certainly, the second seal in Eureka interprets as Meng jun or “dream mushroom”—an approximation of “Dream Fungus,” the title Wong had given to a 1970 exhibition of his ceramics in Berkeley. As a not-so-subtle nod to psilocybin, “Dream Fungus” suggests a psychotropic hallucination, the good countercultural defamiliarizer. Wong steps out of his personal expertise, tripping out on America.

Martin Wong, untitled, ca. 1975, oil on canvas, 24 1⁄4 × 30". © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

IN EUREKA, Wong’s specific pressure of psychedelia was induced by a high quality he known as the “melty.”18 The town in Weatherby’s softens and loses its solidity. Vehicles appear like jelly beans omitted within the solar. Even the night time sky is neither strong nor liquid, squeezing via phone poles and into the foreground. Eureka turns into slimy, viscous. As Sartre mentioned of le visqueux, it grips again at those that grasp it: “Its softness is leech-like.”19 Wong’s portray fuses our gaze with town’s deliquescence. Think about an untitled mid-’70s portray of a person with a cigarette in his mouth. His pores and skin is gloopy; his garments are like moist noodles congealing. He appears out towards Wong, or us, with a sure sleaziness (the stare of a “slimeball”?), which drags us down with him. In an untitled inside scene from the identical interval, we glance out from behind an identical determine’s softening legs and fingers. The room wobbles and glistens. “Distortion is what everybody actually sees,” Wong mentioned upon the publication of Eureka. “Folks’s eyes are spherical and full of jelly. They’re not sq. and arduous.”20 Our imaginative and prescient turns gelatinous, melting into this musty, turbid inside.

Martin Wong, Big Heat, 1986, acrylic on linen, 60 1⁄8 × 48 1⁄8". © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

Wong’s work, too, melted into Eureka. Many items are merely misplaced.21 Of the artwork that may be positioned, a lot has degraded. Over a number of journeys to the world, I’ve watched locals pull work and sculptures out of closets and from underneath mattress frames, many lined in cobwebs and soot—one work had barely survived a hearth. Others are flecked with extra unpleasant substances. A 1998 situation report for The Melon Eaters, ca. 1975–76, from Humboldt State College’s First Avenue Gallery, features a bevy of arrows pointing to the bat guano scattered throughout its floor. It’s tempting to interpret these developments as tragic, however that may imply ignoring the character of Wong’s relationship with town. In sure respects, such loss lastly joined him with the desolation he discovered so stirring. Wong’s sentimentality was tinged with a distinctly romantic nihilism—a “Candy Oblivion,” as he titled his ultimate exhibition in his lifetime.22

Martin Wong, untitled, ca. 1974–75, acrylic on canvas, 24 × 19 3⁄4". © The Wong Foundation/P.P.O.W.

ALL ALONG the Humboldt Bay shoreline, Martin Wong collected driftwood. Publicity to solar and salt had stripped its bark, bleached its floor, and uncovered the twists of its grain. “Simply the odor & the texture of [it],” he wrote to his lifelong buddy Gary Ware, induced an urge to stroll “them lonely seashores.”23 The ostensibly easy pleasure of driftwood masks the bizarre phrases of its attraction. It’s, by definition, solid adrift and devitalized; that it has develop into an indicator of beachside getaways and different demesnes of ersatz rustification solely deepens the warp in its allure. In Humboldt, these stays usually represent the leavings of loggers, who dumped root methods, burls, and different gnarled fragments into waterways that result in the ocean. The contours of this driftwood are acutely poetic, however additionally they converse of violent extraction. Having fun with them requires a sure suspension of judgment, embracing the attract of complexity and smoothness at the price of attrition. Maybe Wong’s art work requires an identical suspension. To savor his Eureka years is to linger with him on the threshold of forgetting, discovering sweetness in oblivion.

Solomon Adler is a doctoral candidate in up to date artwork historical past and idea on the Ruskin Faculty of Artwork, College of Oxford, UK.


1. Cassandra Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds Metropolis’s Magnificence in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” Instances-Customary (Eureka, CA), April 28, 1977, sec. Accent on Folks, 10.

2. Wong was already conversant in the world when he moved to Eureka in 1973. He attended Humboldt State Faculty in close by Arcata from 1964 to 1966, adopted by a quick stint at College of California, Berkeley. He returned to Humboldt State to finish his diploma in 1968, graduating two years later. From 1970 to 1973, he lived within the Bay Space and traveled the “hippie path” via Europe, Morocco, Afghanistan, and India.

3. John Rotter, interview by Solomon Adler, August 11, 2021.

4. Quoted in Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds Metropolis’s Magnificence in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” 10.

5. Fred Neighbor and Joyce Hough, interview by Solomon Adler, August 26, 2021.

6. Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds Metropolis’s Magnificence in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” 10.

7. Martin Wong to Tim Englert, 3 June 1984, assortment of Tim Englert.

8. Martin Wong to Tim Englert, 16 March 1980, assortment of Tim Englert.

9. Julie Ault, “Martin Wong Was Right here,” in Martin Wong: Human Instamatic (New York: The Bronx Museum; London: Black Canine Publishing, 2015), 85. Dan Cameron, “On the Exterior Trying In: Martin Wong and New York within the Nineteen Eighties,” in Martin Wong: Human Instamatic, 104.

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10. John Ross, introduction, in Eureka (Eureka, CA: Martin Wong, 1976), 1.

11. This analysis will probably be revealed within the KW Institute’s forthcoming exhibition catalogue for “Martin Wong. Malicious Mischief.” Kwon has additionally executed intensive work on Wong’s Chinatown work, a part of a guide in progress on artists in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

12. See Mark Dean Johnson, Martin Wong’s Utopia: A Peaceable Life and Heavenly Place (San Francisco: Chinese language Historic Society of America, 2004).

13. A listing raisonné of this magnitude required years of analysis and coordination between Marci Kwon, Mark Dean Johnson, and Anneliis Beadnell, in addition to Gary Ware, president of the Martin Wong Basis, and D. Vanessa Cam, electronic-resources librarian at Emily Carr College of Artwork and Design in Vancouver.

14. Jean Pfaelzer, Pushed Out: The Forgotten Warfare Towards Chinese language Individuals (Berkeley: College of California Press, 2008), 121. Pfaelzer affords an intensive account of the atrocities dedicated towards Chinese language migrants to California in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This description of the Chinese language expulsion from Eureka is indebted to her exhaustive analysis.

15. Craig Clunas, “Two Questions,” Could 9, 2022. I’m grateful for the experience offered by professor Pedith Chan of the Chinese language College of Hong Kong and Dr. Craig Clunas of the College of Oxford.

16. Quoted in Ross, introduction.

17. David Anderson, “Native Painter Believes Artwork Ought to Be A part of Day by day Life,” Instances-Customary (Eureka, CA), January 27, 1975, 2.

18. Yasmin Ramirez-Harwood, “Martin Wong: Writing within the Sky,” East Village Eye, October 1984, 25.

19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Sq. Press, 1993), 608.

20. Phillips, “‘Eureka’: Artist Finds Metropolis’s Magnificence in Neon, Taverns, Rooms . . . ,” 10.

21. For nearly half a century, Florence Fie preserved a number of work from this era within the Wong-Fie household residence on Ewing Terrace in San Francisco. The work have since develop into a part of Dahn Vo’s set up I M U U R 2, 2013, within the assortment of the Walker Artwork Middle in Minneapolis. They continue to be nestled amongst hundreds of trinkets and antiquarian objects amassed by Fie and Wong because the Fifties, which collectively represent Vo’s art work.

22. “Candy Oblivion: The City Panorama of Martin Wong” was organized by Dan Cameron for New York’s New Museum in 1998.

23. Martin Wong to Gary Ware, 1967, Gary Ware Assortment of Martin Wong Letters, the Fales Library and Particular Collections, New York College. I’m grateful to Dr. Marci Kwon for sharing crucial paperwork and insights into the early correspondence between Ware and Wong.

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