It might happen in other cities; I know it happens in New York – a storefront at night, beatific in its bent inner glow, seems punched from some other level of the world, with a bashed-in door or a row of trash cans unveiling a level of truth lacking in the street’s surrounding murk.
Martin Wong, a queer Chinese American with ranchero flair, was a dynamo of the downtown New York art scene in the 1980s. His trippy sense of urbanism informed portrayals of the soaring tenements and tumbling rubble of New York’s down-and-out Lower East Side, haunted by heroin, shadowed by HIV. He painted firemen kissing in front of a smouldering high-rise (Big Heat, 1986) and a sobbing Statue of Liberty made of bricks (Untitled [Statue of Liberty], 1990). But the lowly Untitled (Green Storefront) (1985) is one of his most intensely psychedelic works.
Martin Wong, Big Heat, 1986. Courtesy: Martin Wong Foundation and P·P·O·W, New York
There’s not much to see but a banal piece of the commercial strip: a closed scissor fence, relentless ranks of verticals stitched together with pairs of X-shaped crosses – oozes green. At two metres tall – just shy of life-size – the canvas hangs to the floor like you could rattle the bars and peer into the shadows. The palette runs from smoked chartreuse to scumbled emerald with dustings of crimson throughout, notched into the holly hues of Christmastime. It’s a monochrome trompe-l’oeil but ambivalent about objective reality, since maybe the green is paint, maybe the cast of a grimy neon lamp, or maybe the jade pall of ecstasy.
In its original incarnation at Semaphore Gallery in 1986, the green storefront was shown capped by another canvas: a sign for Elena’s Restaurant. It was also cheek by jowl with another closed doorway, narrower and heavenly in white and grey, titled Iglesia Pentecostal (1986). Nearby, the wonky grilles, garlanded in chains, of the more famous Closed (1984–85), a tripartite composition invoking altarpieces. It was an imaginary district – an impressionistic, apotheosized New York, now more than vanished.
Most of this context slid away in subsequent showings. In ‘Malicious Mischief’, now at the KW in Berlin, Untitled (Green Storefront) hangs in the company of other closed storefronts, but buffered by empty walls (and without the restaurant sign). In isolation, the work seems especially otherworldly, yet the threshold it guards remains that of commerce. A closed storefront? Not romantic, not beautiful, not realistic, but burnt down to the truth. It’s all there behind the gate, that mottled store of oblivion, where all hungers are satisfied, all mysteries explained, all pain exchanged for wisdom. At least that’s how it struck you at the time.