Seriality, color, and time: Matthew Wong at DMA

The Dallas Museum of Art seemed to have known that Matthew Wong was on the cusp of fame before most of the world’s other leading art museums. At the Dallas Art Fair in 2017, they acquired Wong’s oil painting, The West, on a hunch that the emerging artist’s career was on the brink of international recognition. They were right. They were also the only museum that collected the artist’s work during his short lifetime.

It was the first US art fair for Wong, who had only recently become represented by New York’s Karma Gallery. When DMA curators wrote up the press release to announce the acquisition the following day, they struggled to find many credentials on the self-taught Canadian painter, primarily because he’d only been painting for about four years by that point. “It was just on the strength of the work itself, rather than any credentials or CV of the artist,” explains Dr. Vivian Li, the DMA’s Lupe Murchison Curator of Contemporary Art. “We’re very excited we can be part of his story back then, when he was just starting to get recognized.”

This fall, the DMA is presenting Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances, the first museum retrospective and US museum exhibition devoted to the late artist, on view Oct. 16 through Feb. 5, 2023.

Wong was in his late 20s and living in Hong Kong when he began experimenting with painting in 2012, then began to pursue it more earnestly the following year. He had no formal art training and took to social media as his “classroom,” connecting and engaging with artists he admired, sharing his works on Facebook, and asking for advice. He was endearingly regarded as the self-professed “newcomer,” not afraid to ask questions as basic as whether he could mix oil and acrylic paint. “Matthew really stood out because he started out not knowing anything and he progressed so quickly every day,” Li says. “He had all these great advisors right at his fingertips.”

The DMA exhibition includes approximately 55 works by Wong, beginning with his early years in Hong Kong, around the time he debuted his landscape paintings at his first solo exhibition in 2015. A work titled Sanctuary displays the shift in his uses of colors, while ink drawings show his versatility as a self-taught artist. “He had no boundaries because he wasn’t taught any boundaries between mediums,” Li says.

The show then turns to Wong’s return to Canada in 2016, when he begins including human figures in his works before hitting his stride in 2017-2018 by incorporating dense brushstrokes, painted patterns and what he described as “obsessive mark-making.” Some of Wong’s most well-known paintings are contained here, including The West from the DMA’s own collection.

It was in the last two years of his life that Wong began focusing more on seriality, color, and time. “I think in many ways, that’s when he really starts connecting even more with the viewer, where it really resonates with everybody,” Li says. “Everybody has a home or has an idea of home and a lot of his paintings during that time depict the home or interiors of home.” This section of the show includes Wong’s celebrated Blue Series, a collection of monochrome paintings in different tones of blue.

Though the first five galleries are chronological, Li has chosen to make the sixth and final gallery thematic, addressing Wong’s connections with other creative practices. Poetry, for example, was one of his biggest muses. “I think that learning more about his poetry—and his approach to poetry—really helped make sense of a lot of his paintings,” Li says. “How he tried to distill to just the feeling, rather than some place or representation of something.”

Given Matthew Wong’s tragic death by suicide in 2019, there may be a tendency to draw a romanticized Van Gogh-esque caricature of the artist as a “tormented genius.” And while Li notes that they will include some programming addressing mental health and art, that’s not the primary objective of the show. “The last thing I want people to do is to go into the show looking for his mental health issues in the painting,” Li explains. “I think that was definitely part of his life and I think that romanticization of his art and his mental health gets to be where mental health is totally the subject of his art. In many ways, art was how he escaped from that… the purpose of this exhibition is to center back on his art and on his creative practice.”