Martin Wong - "The Eureka Years"
"The Eureka Years" - Before Wong Wowed the Art World
ARCATA – With the death Aug. 12 in San Francisco of renowned artist Martin Wong, a current local exhibition of drawings and paintings he created while he lived in Eureka takes on added poignancy at Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery in Old Town Eureka.
Martin Wong, Portrait of Bill McWhorter in Convertible with Boy and Dog, c.1975, acrylic on canvas
"The Eureka Years: 1964-1978," showing through Sept. 25, depicts local scenes and familiar faces from a place and time before Wong received international acclaim. The New York Times, in its obituary, said Wong "carved out a territory all his own"...with his "culturally complex" art. The gallery will hold its customary "reception for the artist" Saturday night; now, however, Wong's originally anticipated presence will be represented by his art and by his friends. He died of AIDS-related causes at his parents' home. He was 53.
Among Wong's most remembered pieces from his years in Eureka are some of the hundreds of "Human Instamatic" portraits he drew to help support himself while he lived above the Driftwood bar in Old Town. According to Curator Mimi La Plant, an art instructor at Humboldt, "These portraits demonstrate the fluid muscularity of his drawn work."
One shows Dr. Robert Berg performing dentistry on a patient. Another, of artist Peggy Dickinson, has three heads "because Martin said she was moving so fast throwing pots on her ceramics wheel," said La Plant.
"Martin has left an artistic legacy in Humboldt County and many people remember him well and with enormous fondness," she said. "He haunted Old Town.... He is certainly a part of the wild spirit of the Eureka that existed during the ‘60s and ‘70s. He served as a courtroom artist for a sensational trial. After the trial, the judge wanted to buy Martin's drawings."
Wong came to Humboldt County in 1964, after he finished high school, to attend Humboldt as an art student because he'd heard the school was "groovy," La Plant said. He graduated in 1968 with his dog, "Opie,"in attendance. Professor Emeritus Reese Bullen introduced him to calligraphy, she said, and "Martin's beautiful hand is demonstrated in the poetic scrolls exhibited in the ‘Eureka Years' exhibit. The calligraphy combined with his poetry and prose creates an engaging and sensuous interaction between the viewer and Martin.
Some titles of Wong's work give insight to what La Plant calls "his wonderfully tragic/comic personality," such as "Tibetan Porky the Pig with Paper Mâché Genitals" and "Blind Donald Duckies." A photograph shows Wong with his extensive lunch box collection.
"This exhibition represents a homecoming of sorts, of a man returning to the scene of his first flowering," said La Plant. "And to Eureka, a place that can say it did well by one of its most brilliant residents. Martin finally left here in 1978 and headed for New York."