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Wong, Martin (1946-1999)  
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Representing the hotel room in which Wong lived and worked, My Secret World, 1978-1981 (1984) has been compared to Bedroom at Arles (1888) by Vincent van Gogh, whom the later artist considered an inspiration for his own efforts to create a new manner of painting revealing the spiritual in the mundane.

In contrast to van Gogh, Wong makes his room visible only through two windows and thus denies the viewer the full view of the space, as provided by van Gogh.

Blurring boundaries between reality and illusion, the rows of brick create an exquisite surface pattern. The window frames bear a variety of inscriptions, including the declaration that "It was in this room that the world's first paintings for the hearing impaired came into being."

Psychiatrists Testify: Demon Dogs Drive Man to Murder (1980)--one of the best known of Wong's early Paintings for the Hearing Impaired--is displayed within a wide brick frame on the long wall, visible through the left window of My Secret World. In Psychiatrists Testify, voluptuous hands with large fleshy hands fingers spell out in American Sign Language the title and other statements, all derived from a tabloid newspaper account of a murder trial. Within the context of Secret World, this Painting for the Hearing Impaired evokes the seedy hotel rooms of detective novels and films.

Paintings for the Hearing Impaired

The name Wong devised for his American Sign Language series is bluntly humorous since all paintings obviously are comprehensible to the hearing impaired. Wong here may be revealing his impatience with pseudo-liberal identity categories that define and thus limit human potential. Nevertheless, virtually all commentators maintain that the Paintings for the Hearing Impaired simply indicate Wong's deeply felt commitment to reaching out to the socially dispossessed through his art.

Attesting to Wong's profound knowledge of art history, this project also is related to an important theme in Renaissance art theory, concerning the supposed superiority of painting to music. Thus, Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance artists maintained that paintings could so completely engage viewers that they could hear sounds emerging from the scenes depicted.

Originally exhibited in Lower East Side and Soho restaurants and antique shops in 1980, the Paintings for the Hearing Impaired were the first works by Wong to attract significant critical attention. Although Wong rarely produced paintings with Sign Language as the sole subject after the early 1980s, he continued to incorporate hands spelling out words in many cityscapes and figurative paintings.

During a Public Art Fund-sponsored residency at New York City's Department of Transportation (1990), Wong created Traffic Signs for the Hearing Impaired, executed by city workshops in aluminum steel and made the same size and colors as conventional traffic signs. Located in all five boroughs, these are used to identify public schools and to provide important directions ("One Way Street," "Watch Out for Pedestrians," etc.). In 1992, Mayor David Dinkins gave Wong a Special Arts Award to acknowledge his efforts to include all New Yorkers through his creation of these works of art.


During the 1980s, Wong created an extensive series of paintings, which he referred to as Storefronts, depicting the facades of various businesses, places of worship, and social organizations located in the Lower East Side. For example, African Temple at 9th Street (1985) shows two occupants of the storefront temple against its outer walls, which are densely covered with inscriptions. Like many other paintings in the series, African Temple attests to Wong's fascination with graffiti and found inscriptions of all sorts.

Blurring boundaries between reality and illusion, Wong makes several of the Storefront paintings, such as Iglesia Pentecostal (1986), approximately as large as the facades that they are supposed to depict. Moreover, as Jasper Johns did in White Flag (1955), Wong emphasizes the equivalence of painting and subject by omitting any indication of spatial depth. However, in both White Flag and Iglesia Pentecostal, subtly textured paint indicates that the images are reproductions of other things.

Although strongly influenced by Johns' intellectually complex approach to the depiction of supposedly ordinary objects, Wong differed from him by focusing upon subjects that resonated with the experiences of those excluded from the mainstream because of race, economic status, or sexual orientation. Nevertheless, despite Wong's flamboyant personality, references to homosexuality in his paintings of the early 1980s are almost as discreet as in paintings by Johns.

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