Wong had had growing concerns about his work. He knew his abstractions were good, but also that they weren’t all that different from the abstractions of countless other artists. He viewed the praise he received online as a “consoling mirage”. For an untrained painter hopelessly far from New York, Facebook was essential, but he feared it was also an invitation to mediocrity, a “love feast in a kind of cul-de-sac.”
Alternating between uncertainty and confidence became a driving force in Wong’s creative life. After the exhibition in Zhongshan, he pinged Shear. “How do you get into one of the different factions of the rising thirties in the global art scene today?” he asked. “It seems like they are all ascending together. No one climbs alone anymore.”
From southern China, however, Wong’s only way forward was alone. He told Shear that he was changing his approach to painting. The problem with Abstract Expressionism, he said, was that few people could tell if it was good or bad. He wanted to use symbolic imagery, play with figuration. He revised some old pieces; in one he scratched the outlines of two people. “Ugliness done with sophistication seems to do well,” he told Shear. “The late Picasso is always well suited for this.”
Wong’s pictures became stranger, coarser. Eerie forms—semi-organic shapes with stray creases and flattened curves—accomplished an unlikely congruence. They first appeared in his morning ink exercises, which began to mature into follow-up works in their own right. (After his death they became the subject of an exhibition in New York.)
Wong lost some followers who were devoted to his earlier work. But important fans stayed. When he posted a painting of this new genre on Facebook, he received a positive response from John Cheim, whose Cheim & Read gallery represented several accomplished artists. In the painting, called “Memento,” a dark, twisted mass stood out against a yellow background, reminiscent of cracked earth. Fear and anger were evident in the central shape, with some features that were legible – a face partially obscured by wild hair, some prison-like webs – and others that weren’t. It wasn’t exactly a museum piece, but it was good and people on Facebook confirmed it.
He wondered how he could further advance his work. “Painting a good piece doesn’t mitigate anything,” he wrote to Shear. “First thought: ‘Ken I doo eet agen?’ ”
“Hehe, I fight too,” Shear wrote.
“Everybody’s crying best play ever,” Wong said. “It’s actually the worst feeling in the world lol. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in signs from the ether. That’s sobering. It tells you, “Imagine being a blue-chip artist – that feeling is amplified and intensified a thousandfold every time you pick up a brush.” ”
Wong learned in the public eye, created and published images at a tremendous rate. “It was shocking how he would just make leaps in his work every day,” Dutcher, the LA painter, told me. But Wong sometimes released tracks before they were even finished, and the quality varied. When a popular artist suggested he slow down, he was upset. Fearful that painters in Brooklyn would mock him, he obsessively deleted images from paintings he had retouched, telling Shear, “I’m feeling quite exposed to the winds right now, just a weird chill down my spine.”
In October 2015, Monita Wong helped secure a three-day exhibition at a government-run arts center in Hong Kong. He filled the room with forty pieces and this time with a lot more friends. One threw him an after party. It was Wong’s first real exhibition. The venue wasn’t prominent, but he did sell his paintings, which earned him some money to do more art.
After that, Monita told me, Matthew fell into another deep depression. It’s not entirely clear why. Around that time, according to a friend, he had found out that his ex-girlfriend was engaged. In response, he painted all night. He once confessed to another artist that Monita scolded him: “You’ll never have a girlfriend. Nobody will be able to please you. You are a prince.” Monita says she has maintained a pragmatic attitude — telling him that given his problems he should never have children — but that she hoped he would find a wife.
For months the depression did not subside. “It’s pretty pervasive throughout my life right now,” Wong told Shear in January. “I don’t even really feel like fighting or resisting this darkness. The strange perverse thing about it is that I paint right in the middle of it. Even if my attitude is just one of futility, the game goes on.”
Monita took Matthew to America for a month-long stint – an escape, a search for momentum. Shear had arranged for them to do a show together called Good Bad Brush in Washington state. Matthew and Monita also visited Texas, Michigan, Los Angeles and New York. Wong made art every day while traveling. But even when his surroundings changed, his melancholy remained. He hardly made any money and his oil paints and canvases stayed in China. “I feel really terrible, shaking and shit,” he told Shear. “Walk two steps and I’ll get nauseous and dizzy.”
Monita was visiting a friend in Edmonton and decided they would stay as Matthew would benefit from Canada’s healthcare system. He placed himself on a waiting list to see a therapist and continued to seek relief through ink drawings, watercolors, and gouaches on paper. A few weeks later, Shear shared a painting from his studio. “Very nice,” Wong said. “In the middle of an anxiety attack.” Twenty minutes later, Shear called him. “I’m fine,” Wong assured him. “I was just painting.”
Two years after Wong was inspired by the paintings at the Venice Biennale, the curator of the exhibition presented a curious artifact called “The Encyclopedic Palace”. It was an eleven foot tall architectural model built by an auto mechanic in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania in the 1950s (“The Mushroom Capital of the World”). The building—wood, brass, celluloid, hair combs—had taken years of obsessive work to construct in hopes that it would inspire a museum on the National Mall housing all human knowledge. Instead, it languished in a Delaware locker for twenty-two years before being transferred to the American Folk Art Museum. The exhibition at the Biennale caused a stir, and the art world reacted. “Outsider” artists began to appear in galleries and museums with increasing frequency.
The term “outsider art” is almost impossible to define, but its origins can be traced back to a trip Jean Dubuffet made to Switzerland in 1945 to visit psychiatric hospitals and seek art from patients. He called what he found “art brut“: “raw art” created “from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses – where concerns of competition, recognition and social advancement do not interfere.”
In that sense, Wong was both an outsider and not an outsider. He had an MFA, but he taught himself to paint. He worked out of compulsion, but he also cultivated an audience and community of like-minded people. He was caught between East and West: “I’m trying to see where I can fit into the equation of Chinese painting,” he had once remarked, but he was primarily seeking entry into the New York art world.
From Zhongshan, Wong wrote to Shear, “Technically, I’m an outsider artist. are you?”
“I never got my test results,” Shear wrote.
“Just not very brutal,” Wong replied. “lol.”
While looking for an opportunity to exhibit in New York, Wong found out about White Columns, a non-profit space specializing in artists who are not officially represented. At the recommendation of John Cheim, he emailed images of six paintings with a request for an exhibition. Two hours later, director Matthew Higgs responded. He explained that White Columns was booked for next year, but he was curating a group show for an East Village gallery called Karma in September 2016. The exhibition focused on landscapes and was titled Outside – “as in ‘outdoors’ but also to allude to an ‘outsider’ aesthetic/attitude/spirit”. He invited Wong to attach two of his paintings. One showed a naked man, possibly Narcissus, looking into a pond; The other showed a man on a rock masturbating with a woman. Rendered in acrylic, they had the raw but honest figure of an untrained painter.