“The Realm of Appearances,” the Matthew Wong retrospective currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, is full of ghosts. There’s the ghost of Wong himself, of course, who died by suicide in 2019 at age 35. But there are also the ghosts of painters past and present. Wong was an obsessive student of art history, and in his work you find traces of the Fauvists, Qing-era ink painters, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
Perhaps no phantom haunts the show as doggedly as that of Vincent van Gogh. This is for biographical reasons as much as aesthetic ones: the list of parallels between the two artists is lengthy, even eerie. Both started painting in their late twenties; both took their own lives in their mid-thirties. Both were outsiders with strong ties to the art world. Both were odd, misfits. Both painted landscapes that were really about people. (The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam will be hosting a Wong/van Gogh exhibition later this year.)
Curators at the MFA have made a point to emphasize this connection; beside a van Gogh landscape upstairs (“Ravine”), in a gallery of Post-Impressionist paintings, the museum has added a placard referencing the Wong retrospective. It features a quote from a letter van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo: “When anyone says that such and such [painting] is done too quickly, you can reply that they have looked at it too fast.”
It’s an apt quote to describe Wong’s work, as well as van Gogh’s: like the Dutch master before him, Wong worked at lightning speed, producing over 1,000 paintings and drawings in his seven-year career. (Van Gogh, in his decade of painting, produced about 900 paintings and 1,000 works on paper). Wong had Tourette’s syndrome and autism and struggled with clinical depression; his mind moved quickly—forward, backward and in circles, around and around.
Wong, who was born in Canada and grew up in both Hong Kong and Toronto, began painting at the age of 27. He already had an MFA in photography from the City University of Hong Kong, which he earned after a failed stint in the world of corporate finance. In 2011, while interning at the Hong Kong pavilion at the Venice Biennale, he had a revelatory encounter with the paintings of Julian Schnabel and Christopher Wool. Soon he had traded his camera for a paintbrush and was devouring art history from the Internet and the local library.
The MFA show, which was first exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art last year, is divided into two main rooms. In the “early” room, you can see Wong’s first attempts at painting. There are ink drawings, small acrylics and large oils. Many of the paintings are clunky and childish: a set of two titled Banishment from the Garden show two muddied faces, possibly those of Adam and Eve. The faces, painted with thick, clumsy lines, are hard to distinguish. In the background of one, Wong carved awkward vertical lines into the paint with a palette knife or the end of a brush.
Wong’s technique may have been unrefined, but plenty of highly skilled painters have nothing to say. Wong had something to say, and it was his vision, his intense desire to express what was within him, that drove him to learn. And learn he did. From his frenzied study of art history, he gleaned lessons in mark making, color and composition. Within three short years of picking up a brush, he was turning out sophisticated and poetic paintings, made up of vibrant colors and quick, obsessive brushstrokes.
Most of these paintings are landscapes, pulled from Wong’s imagination. They’re lonely, sometimes, but also quiet and expansive. In The West, a small ghostly figure, sketched in with white paint, looks out over a dark, mountainous desert. Quick dabs of paint form the land, trees and stars. Around the corner, Blue Rain shows a simple white house surrounded by tall blue trees. A moon hangs above the house, and short streaks of blue rain cross the canvas. The pieces may have been painted quickly, but they reward slow looking.
Wong’s feverish drive didn’t always result in brilliant work. Since his death, the conversation around Wong has dealt in extremes: curators and critics have depicted him as a tormented genius, struck by divine inspiration (Roberta Smith called him “one of the most talented painters of his generation”). Wong was talented, but he was also still developing. Many of the paintings in the show don’t feel quite done. If the urgency with which Wong painted was a sign of creative inspiration, it was also, sometimes, a sign of compulsion and grasping. Painting was an escape for Wong (he once told a friend that “not painting is pain”), and artistic glory offered Wong, finally, the possibility of social acceptance. Sometimes it feels like Wong is running toward something, a beautiful vision, and sometimes it feels like he’s running away from the ghosts at his back.
But ghosts often go hand-in-hand with beauty, as Wong and van Gogh knew well. Shortly before his death, van Gogh made a painting of a wheat field near Paris. Streaks of rain, depicted as blue lines, cross the field at diagonals; dark crows fly above it. It should be a tragic painting, given how van Gogh died (he shot himself in such a field later that week), but it’s oddly peaceful. The horizon stretches out before you; you can sense, through the streaks of rain, a vastness, an expanse.
Wong’s equivalent painting is Realm of Appearances, from which the show, rightly, takes its title. The piece, completed in 2018, a year before Wong’s death, shows a pink landscape under a moony sky. The land depicted in thick, fast dashes of paint is reminiscent of van Gogh’s brushstrokes but more spacious. There’s a small gray figure in the corner of the scene. You could read the piece as an expression of loneliness. But it’s also serene, transcendent, even. If the figure isn’t at peace, then it’s only because he can’t see the whole picture the way we can. He doesn’t know that he’s surrounded by beauty.
Is Wong our van Gogh? Not quite. Van Gogh was a painter through and through, obsessed with the physical world and with the medium of paint. Wong was more of an image maker, who used paint to provide insight into an unseen, ethereal world. In this sense, he is more Munch or Bonnard than van Gogh. What’s remarkable about Wong, though, is not that he resembled other great painters but rather that he was himself… that in such a short period, he was able to develop his own voice. We’re left to wonder what he might have done, and who he might have been, if he had had more time.