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Blue Views at the AGO this winter

Painting of houses on a lake at night
1 year ago

Matthew Wong’s dreamy canvases are both moody and luminous

Since the Gardiner Museum reopened to the public in July, it’s been thrilling to watch our visitors bring the galleries back to life with their energy and curiosity. As we all start to venture out more and more and re-immerse ourselves in favourite activities, there are few experiences more restorative than a visit to a museum. With so many outstanding institutions in our city and an exciting roster of special exhibitions, now is the perfect time to plan a visit. We recently stopped by the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and found ourselves once again transported by the art and atmosphere of this iconic Toronto destination.

Exterior of the AGO
Photo: Courtesy of the AGO

What stood out was an exhibition by Toronto-born Chinese Canadian artist Matthew Wong (1984-2019). During his brilliant but short-lived career, Wong created vivid still life paintings and imaginary landscapes that are both deeply personal and universally appealing.

Painting of a bed and painting of a window with a flower in a vase
Left: Matthew Wong, Untitled, 2019. Gouache on paper, 30.5 x 22.9 cm © 2019 Matthew Wong Foundation; Right: Meanwhile…, 2018. Oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm. © 2018 Matthew Wong Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York. Image courtesy of Karma, New York

Matthew Wong: Blue View, on now and organized by the AGO, is the first ever museum exhibition of his work. The scale of the paintings belies the intimacy and vulnerability of the subject matter. The blue palette is incredibly rich: cerulean, cobalt, navy, indigo, ultramarine, and azure. Punctuated by dots of bright orange, his artworks are unexpectedly luminous and suffused with warmth, inviting the viewer into the artist’s private space. You often feel as if you’re looking out through his eyes, quietly surveying his darkened bedroom or watching the snow fall gently outside his window.

Painting of a forest in the dark
Matthew Wong, Autumn Nocturne, 2018. Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.9 cm. © Matthew Wong Foundation. Image courtesy of Karma, New York

Standing transfixed in front of a moonlight-bathed landscape, it’s easy to see why The New York Times heralded Wong as “one of the most talented painters of his generation.” The 31 paintings and nine works on paper, all made within the last few years of his life, mesmerize with their hypnotic patterns and virtuosic strokes.

Painting of houses on a lake at night
Matthew Wong, Starry Night, 2019. Oil on canvas 152.4 x 177.8 cm. © Matthew Wong Foundation. Image Courtesy of Karma, New York

No less entrancing than Van Gogh’s famed artwork of the same title, Wong’s Starry Night (2019) stands out. The work reflects the artist’s incredible capacity to synthesize his many, varied influences (Edvard Munch and Louise Bourgeois, Van Gogh, Yayoi Kusama and Kanye West among them) while making them distinctly his own.

Wong was born in 1984 in Toronto. He attended The York School and earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Michigan in 2007. After completing an MFA in photography at Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, he taught himself how to paint through research, experimentation, and discussions with fellow artists and art world figures.

Diagnosed with clinical depression and Tourette’s syndrome in his childhood, Wong was identified as being on the autism spectrum in his adult years, just before his passing. He died by suicide at age 35 in October 2019.

Painting of a path through a blue forest and a yellow sky
Matthew Wong, A Dream, 2019. Oil on canvas, 177.8 x 203.2 cm. © 2019 Matthew Wong Foundation

Wong’s solitude is palpable in his work, but his paintings are also full of possibility and the desire to let people in. Moving through the exhibition feels like floating through a dream, down winding paths and through moonlit trees. You’ll leave feeling as if the artist has shared a secret with you.

“I do believe that there is an inherent loneliness or melancholy to much of contemporary life,” Wong said when asked about his work. “I feel my work speaks to this quality, in addition to being a reflection of my thoughts, fascinations, and impulses.”

As the weather turns colder and the days get shorter, Wong’s nocturnal world feels even more fitting. Book your timed-entry tickets to the AGO today and experience first-hand the work of this singular talent.

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