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A Short but Winding Road in Matthew Wong’s Paintings at MFA, Boston

Installation view, “Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On view July 1, 2023 to February 18, 2024 in the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Matthew Wong’s work possesses the rare ability to balance intensity and restraint, beckoning the viewer to come closer, to step inside. For Wong, technique has few limits—hurried dashes of paint mingle with globs likely applied straight from the tube, all in polite conversation with long, elegant trails of brushstrokes. This is what makes works like Once Upon a Time in the West (2018) or Landscape with Mother and Child (2017), two paintings on view in “Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances” at the MFA, so delightful to behold. A wide range of emotion, captured in paint, exemplifies the important relationship between rhythm and gesture. “The Realm of Appearances” presents nearly forty works ranging in scale, media, and style, demonstrating the omnifarious artistic journey Wong undertook from the beginning of his painting career in 2013 to its untimely end in 2019 when Wong tragically took his own life.

Matthew Wong (Canadian, 1984–2019), Landscape with Mother and Child, 2017. Oil on canvas. Brooker‑Pardee Family. © 2023 Matthew Wong Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Although the term “self-taught” is often associated with his painting career—sometimes used to separate him from artists who may have taken a more “traditional” path—this exhibition demonstrates Wong was very much aware not just of art historical precedent but also of the trends of the contemporary art world. As a neurodivergent individual whose life was spent between Canada and Hong Kong, Wong was an avid user of social media, using it to connect with other artists and to create his own personal narrative. His landscapes—some dreamy, ethereal, others nightmarish or gloomy—draw inspiration from major art movements of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Western avant-garde as well as Chinese painting tradition, including ink painting. “The Realm of Appearances” includes many evocative large- and medium-scale ink paintings that show the breadth of Wong’s visual vocabulary.

Installation view, “Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. On view July 1, 2023 to February 18, 2024 in the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

A number of paintings in the show are accompanied by small reproductions of paintings Wong was referencing; for example, The Kingdom (2017) recalls Gustav Klimt’s Birch Forest (1903). But Wong’s inspiration is more complex than just one reference image, perhaps taking cues from Impressionism or even Pointillism, and he moves beyond reproduction to create something entirely new; within the dense forest he inserts a small king within an arched frame, perhaps symbolizing a shelter or a portal. Though the canvas is teeming with pigment, we see control and care in the brushstrokes. We are informed that the king figure appears in a number of the artist’s paintings, typically depicted in isolation or contemplation, and could be seen as a stand-in for himself. The people in Wong’s paintings are often so much smaller than their surroundings, presenting us with mysterious protagonists through which to view and understand the scene—often, they are not so much subjects of the image as they are observers, providing a contextual foothold into the richness of their environment.

Wong’s life and career is often broken down into linear periods (for an in-depth look, the accompanying exhibition catalogue by Vivian Li and Raffi Khatchadourian’s brilliant New Yorker article from 2022, “Matthew Wong’s Life in Light and Shadow” are great places to start). Beginning his artistic journey with poetry, then photography, and finally painting, Wong traveled a winding road of self-discovery to find his ideal mode for self-expression. And though he is best known for his paintings, is it clear his penchant for the compactness and symbolism of poetry and the immediacy of photography trickled into his approach to painting. Certainly, this traveling retrospective, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, champions that approach, identifying distinct periods to explain Wong’s development as an artist. The MFA’s gallery layout and two points of entry make it a little difficult to interpret this linearity, but the choose-your-own adventure path ultimately opens up room for wonder and self-discovery for the viewer, which feels like an appropriate way to take in Wong’s work. Given that Wong was not shy to take inspiration from those who came before him, it might be best to take in “The Realm of Appearances” after wandering the MFA galleries and brushing up on some art history.

Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearances” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through February 18, 2024.

Karolina Hać is a writer and creative professional working at the intersection of art, culture, and the built environment. She has been a contributing writer at Boston Art Review since 2018, and her writing has appeared in Landscape Architecture MagazineAmadeus Magazine, and Big Red & Shiny. She currently runs development operations at the Boston Society for Architecture as its advancement manager.