A month ago, I saw Martin Wong and Aaron Gilbert 1981-2021 at PPOWand wrote myself a note: "A show that is actually about broken promises and resistance." Life got busy but the exhibition stayed with me. I thought about how Wong rendered bricks and metal, using pigment to build mortar on Lower East Side tenements, and silver fields, lit with black and white strokes, to paint the cold steel of prison. Gilbert's mastery and precision rang in my head too. My attention was grabbed by something more than technical proficiency. Others paint like both artists, but few can do so and be engaged with the world as they are.
Wong's paintings were made in the 1980's when he was involved with community activism in the predominantly Latino L.E.S. As a gay Chinese-American, he was a real ally, bearing witness to the state's punishment and erasure of people whose race was different from his own. His work resisted brutality in a two pronged approach. The first strategy can be seen in his standout works Lock-up and Prison Bunk Beds, where the isolation and torture of prison is on full display. He then simultaneously indicts and reinvisions the structures, literal and physical, that house the poor and incarcerated. Urban ruins are reconsidered as space-craft; two lovers, sitting under cinder-block covered windows, lounge as if they were on an outing to the Seine; prisoners break free of their incarceration (if only in death). The second approach is a map to seeing and being in the world differently, a map for resistance. It's deftness lies in offering an alternative vision of the present, inside a framework that reminds us of the urgency for change.
The precise identities of the people in Gilbert's paintings are unknown but they are neither white, nor rich. Poor people of color who bear the weight of capitalist exploitation populate his work. In the front window of the gallery is Ready Willing and Able. In it, men wearing uniforms from the DOE Fund (a program to rehabilitate formerly homeless or incarcerated people) sit at a bar. They deal with stress in familiar ways, drinking and playing lotto – behavior often used to scapegoat the poor for their plight. The horizontal "spirit" in the center of the painting and the opened third eye on the character at the right of the composition, hint that there is more to these men than their hard life and petty vices. In each of Gilbert's paintings we see the stresses that the subjects endure, a lost medicaid card, a parking summons, poor health, and most notably having to work and provide for one's family, in public space, during a pandemic. The structural aggressions of society, large and small, are always met with notes of humanity that push-back against a one dimensional portrayal of low income people. The characters do survive, connecting to their loved ones, experiencing the touch and companionship of family members, or stealing a moment for themselves. In a pandemic-painting, titled B15, a man passes a meal to a female bus driver through a plastic curtain remarkably furnished in oil paint. This work summarizes the maxim of Gilbert's work in spirit and form, life can be excruciatingly hard but it can be just as tender and beautiful.
By using the word "actually" in my first note about the exhibition, I implied that some art claiming to be about "resistance" and "broken promises" is not. What I mean is that Gilbert and Wong expose how society preys on people of color and how they resist. Neither the people in the paintings, nor the painters, capitulate to the idea that if people of color can join the ruling class all will be made right. The images insist that the subjects' lives and relationships are dignified and worthy despite struggle and degradation. This is in contrast to the way many artists, institutions, and collectors are trying to decolonize art, through depiction, rather than exposing the causes of these ills. Simply depicting a more diverse group of people in art, without exposing why and how that group suffers and lives is, at worst, virtue signaling, or at best, an insufficient gesture. To address the crush of racialized capitalism is not art's purpose, but if art does seek to do this it must expose the broken promises our society is founded on and show how the oppressed hold on to their humanity despite their raw deal. Both painters have a vigorous, relevant, and clear commitment to this idea.