Dubbed ‘one of the most talented painters of his generation’ by The New York Times, the late Chinese- Canadian artist Matthew Wong’s works have captivated audiences worldwide with his dreamlike landscapes and still lifes, often drawing comparisons to the works of Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse and Edvard Munch. River at Dusk is an enthralling work depicting a romantic river scene lined with lush foliage at golden hour. A large two metre composition executed a year before the artist’s untimely passing, the work offers an immersive experience into the contemplative wonderlands that exist in the artist’s imagination.
A Transition to Art
Born in Toronto, Wong spent his childhood growing up between Canada and Hong Kong. He then graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in cultural anthropology before moving back to Hong Kong. After flitting through several desk jobs, Wong eventually picked up a master’s degree in Photography at the School of Creative Media in the City University of Hong Kong. A self-taught artist, it was only in 2012 that Wong discovered art, which quickly became ‘all encompassing’, firstly with drawing, then eventually transitioning into oil on canvas. Thereon fervently educating himself through social media, Wong connected with people and absorbed knowledge through platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. As expected of a bona fide millennial, Wong even reached out to and consulted with curator and gallerist John Cheim on choices of oil paints through the digital platforms.
Wong’s Painterly Approach
Painting mostly through instinct and from imagination, in a short span of a few years Wong created a visual vocabulary that was unrestricted by the confines of traditional fine art education. Calling to mind the Neo-Impressionist style that circled around Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, (See for example Henri Edmond Delacroix, Valley with Fir (Shade on the Mountain), 1909) Wong drew inspiration from the techniques and traditions of painting en plein air, manifesting scenes of nature from long walks around his studio in Edmonton and synthesising personal experiences with knowledge from masters of the past and present (see for example David Hockney, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate, East Yorkshire in 2011 (twenty eleven), 2011).
River at Dusk presents a work of an artist who was exploring the tactility of paint and the infinite possibilities of colour harmony and contrasts. Wong pulls the brush across the canvas in thin and thick bands to create a flat graphic quality in the skies and river, but also captures the effects of natural light with varying lengths of brushstrokes, producing vibrant weaving patterns of different forms of greenery in short, pin-point strokes. Recreating the spontaneity and painterly approach of plein air painters with frenetic brushstrokes, in River at Dusk Wong animates the ethereal worlds in his mind, conveying the spiritual and ephemeral qualities of natural landscapes through loosely defined forms and unconcealed brushwork.
Emotional Sensitivity Depicted Through Colour
From the tangerine and plum shades in the skies to the indigo branches and juniper waters, Wong’s use of complementary colours is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s expressive palette, depicting an emotional sensitivity to colour and saturation that conveys serenity, and yet seems to glitter with the restlessness of life.
Within the luminous fields of colour, the image also flows to a single point where the river meets a golden sky slowly descending into darkness. Amidst the vibrant colours of the landscape, the composition is tinged with waves of melancholy. Indicating the exact timing of the scene through its title, River at Dusk foreshadows its impending nightfall, creating a sense of inevitability and distress in the yearning to capture the last flickering moments of the day. This is perhaps an unconscious reflection of Wong’s state of mind. The artist was on the autism spectrum and struggled with Tourette’s syndrome and depression throughout his life. Coincidentally, in his life Vincent Van Gogh was also tortured with psychiatric illness, and even spent a year in a mental institution in Saint-Rémy-de- Provence. Painting the views of the gardens at the asylum (see for example Garden of the Asylum, 1889), in a letter to his friend Van Gogh described his working method in the depiction of his painting:
"The sky is reflected yellow in a puddle after the rain. A ray of sun — the last glimmer — exalts the dark ochre to orange — small dark figures prowl here and there between the trunks. You’ll understand that this combination of red ochre, of green saddened with grey, of black lines that define the outlines, this gives rise a little to the feeling of anxiety from which some of my companions in misfortune often suffer, and which is called ‘seeing red’." —Vincent Van Gogh
Taking a leaf out of art history, Wong’s fauvist palette in the work’s plum and orange skies, pairing the greens of the water with the reds in the trees similarly reflects this conscious use of opposing shades to intensify the emotional charge of his paintings. A work deeply rooted in the human experience, within the magical bucolic setting Wong’s composition channels undercurrents of loneliness and internal conflict. Tortured by his inner demons, Wong painted incessantly, using painting as a form of solace as tormented talents like Van Gogh did (even drawing examples with contemporary examples such as Yayoi Kusama, see for example Lot 9 INFINITY-NETS (QRTWE) (2007), and Lot 10 Fruits [EPSOB] (2011)). River at Dusk carries a silent meditative weight, its bewitching scenery a vehicle to transport viewers into an otherworldly realm cut off from the noise, and often struggles of reality.
Wong’s two exhibitions in 2018 at KARMA in New York, and Galerie Frank Elbaz in Paris, as well as his posthumous exhibitions at KARMA in 2019 and 2020 were met with widespread critical acclaim in publications such as The New York Times and the New Yorker. An exhibition at the Aishti Foundation, Beirut in 2018, where the present work was also shown, and a solo show at Arch Athens in 2020 further testifies the strong interest in the boundless potential of an artist that lives on through his works.