The jail scene that made it into Art & Queer Culture
On the day of his birth, we look back at the work of Martin Wong, the painter and chronicler of the Lower East Side
The American painter Martin Wong was born in 1946 to Chinese-American parents and was raised in San Francisco’s China Town. Yet many of his pictures captured the lives of a very different community, many miles away, thanks in part to his close relationship with the Puerto Rican born, Manhattan poet and performer Mikey Pinero.
As our book, Art & Queer Culture puts it, Wong’s “compositions chronicle survival in his drug-and-crime-besieged Lower East Side neighbourhood.” Painting during the 1980s, Wong was aware of the prevailing identity politics at work in the art world, but still managed to resist clichés and stereotyping, as our book’s examination of this 1984 work, The Annunciation According to Mikey Pinero (Cupcake and Paco), shows.
“In this painting, Wong takes a scene from one of Pinero’s plays and relocates it within the pictorial conventions of Christianity,” explains the book. “In Wong’s version, the annunciation is a transaction between two prisoners. Paco, kneeling, tries to seduce the newly arrived Cupcake, who replies, ‘Leave me alone! I’m not a fag.’ Pinero’s writings tended to be harsh on queers, but Wong has resituated his source material to convey an ambiguous and intensely homoerotic prison scene, paying explicit homage to Jean Genet, author of Miracle of the Rose, by adding the graffiti of a rose on the wall of the prison cell.”
Sadly, in 1994 Wong was diagnosed with AIDS. With his health declining, he moved back to San Francisco and died under the care of his parents at the age of 53 on August 12, 1999. Readers wanting to know more about Martin Wong's place in art and queer culture, should order a copy of Art & Queer Culture here.