Martin Wong & Aaron Gilbert
There is tenderness in these paintings—a couple, for instance, embraces amongst rubble in Sharp & Dottie (1984)—but, as a rule, the late Martin Wong’s New York, as seen in this show, is a dark one. It incarcerates scores of its own, as depicted across multiple prison paintings. Even when ostensibly free, it imprisons them in poverty, as in the city-scapes of rough-hewn, earth-tone buildings, lined with barbed wires, windows bricked. Wong, who was gay, managed to survive the AIDS crisis of the 1980s (he eventually died of complications from the virus in 1999), but it made an indelible impact upon him. Then—as now—was a time of governmental failure and mass death.
“1981–2021,” at P.P.O.W., weaves a selection of Wong’s work with that of Aaron Gilbert, who presents work made throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, transformed from the time of Wong but no less cruel. In Empire state of mind/Flaco 730 Broadway (2020) [pictured], Gilbert treats the same subject as Wong: a couple cradles each other on a corner as the glow of a liquor store illuminates anti-homeless spikes atop a sprinkler. The grim symbols of this past year make appearances across some works—the N95s wound across heads and necks; the ubiquitous smirk of the Amazon box; the weary, pink-rimmed eyes and largely brown and Black skin of the workers who cart them—but the characters Gilbert depicts are often highly specific as well: sheathed by the clear curtains intended to protect MTA workers at the height of the pandemic, a passenger extends an offering to his bus driver in Nightshift B15 (2020).
Aaron Gilbert, Empire state of mind/Flaco 730 Broadway, 2020. Oil on linen, 40 x 46 inches. Courtesy of Aaron Gilbert and P·P·O·W, New York.