Just once before I die
I want to climb up on a
tenement sky
to dream my lungs out till
I cry
then scatter my ashes thru
the Lower East Side.

Excerpt from A Lower East Side Poem by Miguel Piñero

Always Locked In, Always Locked Out

Visionary artist Martin Wong defied categorization, both intentionally and inadvertently. As a queer, Chinese-American artist, Wong was not deaf, but he used ASL, did not speak Spanish, but was embraced by the Nuyorican community, and although he was raised in San Francisco, Wong was one of the most distinctive documentarians of New York City. 

The gritty, run-down tenements of the Lower East Side in particular were a favorite subject of the artist. Working with his partner and frequent collaborator, poet Miguel Piñero, Wong used the visual language of his environment to explore the intersections of race, sexuality and individuality in his stunning body of work. Painted with care, and imbued with a richness and romanticism that made them appear both blighted and beautiful, Wong’s brick compositions loomed large. In the present work, the viewer is comes face to face with a brick wall. Painstakingly rendered and housed within a gilt frame, the work evokes either a magical portal, or a bleak reality depending on which side of the wall the viewer stands. As Wong described, “Taking down to street level this time, I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict that has us all bound together… Always locked in, always locked out, winners and losers all…”

Watch Martin Wong by PBS LearningMedia to learn more.

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