“Matthew Wong: The Realm of Appearance” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is the strangest show, a wonderful show in which half the paintings are clumsy. Even some great people are half clumsy. That’s Wang’s charm in a nutshell: Thankfully, he doesn’t seem interested in creating tasteful, refined, well-crafted art. His limitations were evident from the start. In 2019, at the age of 35, in the years before his suicide, he did not correct these mistakes, but made them work. Once he gets to work, his compositions stumble into artful choreography, and his colors can be so jarring that they land with an eerie silence. He’s also surprisingly quick to learn — watching the show is like watching a time-lapse video of a plant exploding from the soil. In a fair world, there should now be a forest.
Huang painted landscapes. Art history offers several possible terms for his style: “naive art”, “art of the outsider”, “art native”. “The Art of the Outsider” seems to be the one that got stuck (a 2016 group show in Amagansett, “Outside,” catapulted him to fame), though the truth is darker. He taught himself drawing, but only after he developed an interest in photography (the subject of his MFA degree). He spent little time in New York but spent many years in Hong Kong, home to the world’s third-largest art market. Despite his size, good looks and stylish attire, he often felt uncomfortable in crowds and struggled with depression and autism. He had powerful allies in the Manhattan gallery world, though most of them he only met towards the end of his life.
Is he really an outsider? This is a silly question, but an important one.Mr. Huang’s paintings are about Inside and outside, in every sense: social, psychological, spatial, formal. He knew his blue-chip artists, and the writing on the walls identified works by Wu Guanzhong, Gustav Klimt, Yayoi Kusama and Edvard Munch. (The show, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and curated by Vivian Li, subtly explores Huang’s influence without over-explaining it.) On the other end of the seesaw, you find visual ideas so fundamental that you already know them From when you were four years old: the sun is a yellow disc with lines sticking out of it; the body is a blob with four sticks and a circle; the tree is a vertical line with a wavy line at the top. Childish and norm face to face, but there is no dialogue between them unless there is a conflict. Huang also never tried to lighten the mood. His paintings are humorless, and their thick impasto surfaces, invisible in the Facebook photos that first caught the gallerist’s attention, add a touch of angst.
When images like this don’t work, they’re rough, and that’s it. When they do, they are rude, everything Other: Vulnerable, cunning, ecstatic, sinister. Kingdom (2017) is a painting of a forest that a frightened child might dream of. You could call it Wong Kar-wai’s homage to Klimt’s Birch Forest (1903), but it’s more like a point-by-point rebuttal: instead of a comfortable emptiness, he’s giving you an unfit A place where people suffocate. Human; instead of Klimt’s foggy outdoor cathedral, he brings you a row of pale, blue-spotted trees whose paint almost stings your eyeballs. He has a way of making the outdoors look like the interior of some cramped, windowless room. There’s a small figure wearing a crown—possibly referring to the Chinese character for the surname Huang, meaning “king”—but no one else. What’s the point of ruling a place where you can barely breathe?
Most of the art in this exhibition is divided into two galleries: one for, to use the horribly abbreviated terminology imposed by Huang’s death, “early” works, and one for “late” works. I suggest you do “Late” briskly, “Early” at a medium pace, and finally take a second, longer look at “Late.” There is a fine line between chaos and incoherence, and it took Huang years to get on the right side. Heaven and Earth (2015), one of the oldest works on display, is both a good sample of his original love of abstract ink painting on paper and a prime example of ordinary chaos: without rhythm or rhythm. The momentum of the handwriting, from thin to thick to almost violent sudden splatters. Early victories are often fragmented, rather than the whole picture—the tall gray mountain resembling a sleeping vulture in Landscape of Longing (2016); or the scorching sun in Landscape of Mother and Child (2017), Looks like the kind they use for sacrifices.