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Wong, Martin (1946-1999)  
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A typical painting of the period, Weatherby's (about 1974), depicts a road with diner, motel, and stores--a commercial strip that could be located almost anywhere in the United States. Ignoring the natural and architectural splendors glorified by other regional artists, Wong represented Eureka as it probably was experienced by many of its working-class residents. Also dating from the mid-1970s, a portrait of a fellow artist, Bill McWhorter in a Convertible with a Boy and Dog, is infused with the erotically-charged, rugged masculine energy apparent in his later paintings of acquaintances in New York City.

The free handling of paint, electric colors, and swirling forms of the earlier work contrast with the meticulous execution, earth tones, and carefully-balanced compositions characteristic of his paintings of the following decade.

The bright neon colors and the exuberant, curved shapes of Weatherby's correspond with much of the psychedelic art produced in the San Francisco Bay Area during the late 1960s and the 1970s. However, Wong has indicated that he was most strongly influenced by Regionalist American artists of the 1930s; for instance, Thomas Hart Benton similarly infused town and landscape views with a great sense of energy by arranging forms in wave-like patterns.

Advertising himself as the "Human Instamatic," Wong supported himself in part by drawing portraits of other residents of Eureka. Despite his slogan, he consistently treated subjects in a highly imaginative way. For example, he drew Peggy Dickinson with three heads to convey her energy. Although later commentators often have characterized these portraits as grotesque, his clients were pleased by the accuracy with which he captured their distinctive characteristics, physical and otherwise. A very vigorous use of line enlivens all these portrait drawings. Influenced by Persian miniatures and Chinese landscape scrolls, Wong fused images, lettering, and decorative motifs into dense patterns.

By 1967, Wong had an apartment in the heart of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, and he began to divide his time between San Francisco and Eureka. Wong eagerly participated in the emerging hippie movement, joyfully taking advantage of the era's sexual freedom and experimenting heavily with psychedelic drugs. Some critics have attributed the visionary aspects of his work to his use of hallucinogenic substances, but it seems unlikely that his artistic genius has such a simple explanation.

By the mid-1970s in San Francisco, Wong was actively involved in the Angels of Light, a communal theatrical group that sought to fuse mysticism and sexuality in presentations that incorporated dance, music, lavish costumes, and performance styles from diverse cultural traditions. Wong helped to paint the scenery for their shows, which were usually presented outdoors. Although the commune had a significant number of women members, performances by the Angels tended to emphasize specifically gay male sexuality, and audience members were encouraged to join performers in realizing sexual fantasies as a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment.

In 1978, Wong abandoned the relatively laid-back environments of Eureka and Haight Ashbury and resolved to establish himself as a major player in the highly competitive New York art world. The boldness of his decision can hardly be overemphasized; thus far, his art had received only a very minimal level of attention on the regional level.

Despite this radical change in his career path, Wong's experiences as a hippie continued to manifest themselves throughout his later years. Until the end of his life, he continued to sport the long hair and large Fu Manchu moustache characteristic of hippies. Moreover, he maintained a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, and he continued to utilize hallucinogenic substances, once ending up in Bellevue Hospital as a result. Inspired by the communal ideals of the hippie movement at its best, he often freely distributed proceeds of his artistic endeavors to help friends and other struggling artists.

Wong in the Lower East Side

Moving to New York in 1978, Wong immediately established himself in the Lower East Side, a working-class neighborhood, which, by the 1970s, had become a predominantly Puerto Rican community with numerous other minority residents, especially Dominicans and other Latinos and African Americans. Attracted by the low rents, many young aspiring artists helped to make the Lower East Side a major center of advanced art production between approximately 1974 and 1984. Although the neighborhood has now been largely gentrified, it was still run-down in the 1970s and 1980s.

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