Article - Autumn 2022

An Artist of Our Social Age

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Matthew Wong broke all the rules and flourished online, but he craved what the outsider typically eschews: commercial success

By Sierra Bellows | September 1, 2022
The West, 2017, oil on canvas
The West, 2017, oil on canvas

Man, I’m so far gone off the painting deep end. I register virtually everything I see outside in terms of a painterly effect. Now it is really scary. I have internalized it, so it is kinda normal to me and not panic inducing, but I can imagine if a stranger were to walk these shoes for like a block they’d be terrified of how they were experiencing the world.

These words, part of a message sent to a friend during the early part of Matthew Wong’s career, offer a glimpse into the mind of a painter now recognized as one of the most celebrated of his generation. Wong suffered from debilitating mental illness—he died by suicide in 2019, at the age of 35—but during his brief life, he worked with a relentless creative energy. Though he began as an abstract artist, his later paintings render highly patterned imaginary landscapes and domestic still lifes in poignant blues, dazzling yellows, and ochres. He made each of his paintings in a single session, so as not to lose the ephemeral feelings he hoped to capture. His studios were messy, reflective of his fast and physical labor. Sometimes he would lean a canvas-in-progress against a wall and use a paper towel as a palette. As a result, paint would drip on drop cloths, his shoes, and the floor. On many occasions, he completed several canvases in a single day; sometimes, when an ostensibly finished painting had dried, he would layer another image over it. Toward the end of his life, when he was living in Edmonton, Alberta, Wong said that he would have worked 16 hours a day but for the fact that he couldn’t drive and depended on his mother to transport him to and from his studio.

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