Walt Bushman and Ducks, circa 1976
Acrylic on canvas
36 x 18 inches (91.44 x 45.72 cm)
Gift of the artist to the current owner
Can a still life be autobiographical?
A tower of objects, Walt Bushman and Ducks is a very early example of Wong's practice of depicting his collections, one that would continue throughout his career. Typically when we think of Martin Wong, we think of the East Village in the 1980s and 90s. Yet roughly a decade of artwork exists before Martin arrived in New York City, a formative body of work not nearly as well documented.
Artist John Rotter found an old store front in the waterfront area of Eureka CA, in 1973, long before the area now known as Old Town became gentrified. Rent was $25 a month, and John set to build live/work spaces for himself and a closely-knit group of artists within the space, which became Chirimoya Metals and Textiles. Martin Wong wandered into Chirimoya one day, his loft studio within the WACO building mere blocks away. Martin became an indispensable part of the Chirimoya family, painting portraits of the group, as well as other locals, including Walt Bushman, whose portrait is included among the objects depicted here. Walt Bushman was a local fellow who would happen by the arts space, talking about the sounds playing on the radio in his head. It was little wonder Martin was fascinated, much as he was with Eureka's waterfront area on a whole, the fishermen and their boats, the smell of seafood processing plants, the second hand stores and card rooms, and the dive bars on every corner. The waterfront area of Eureka was Martin's living room, with much of the same bohemian charm the East Village would have for him in his future.
Enrolling in Humboldt State University in 1964, Martin Wong was living and working in San Francisco and Eureka until he left for NYC in 1978 at 32 years of age. Chirimoya was, for him, a formative time immersed in a DIY arts space leading to collaboration and lasting friendships with John, John's wife Jeannette "Pirate Jenny" Gavin, and many others. Much like his well-documented time in the East Village among artist friends such as Charlie Ahearn, DAZE and others, Martin's gang in Eureka was similarly active in creating art and looked to Martin as a peer, a sounding board, and a beloved friend.
Walt Bushman and Ducks has much to say: the black and white painted frame surrounding Walt's portrait was a constant at this time - Martin had stacks of painted frames ready to be paired with a finished work. This was before Martin settled on simply painting a frame directly on his canvas, typically a wood grain border, often with text "carved" into the pattern. The tchotchkes, toys and assorted items surrounding the portrait are small elements of Martin's massive collections. And in simply painting a corner of his room, Martin shows us how very important his collecting, accumulating, hoarding, even - could be.
Beginning his obsession with buying up little treasures as a young boy, his mother Florence not only encouraged his buying habits, but often was knee-deep in collectibles right along with Martin, out on adventures together, seeking out the kitschiest salt and pepper shakers they could find. Martin took this passion with him to New York, and Walt Bushman and Ducks proved to be an influential early work that led to, among other paintings, his 1978-81 masterpiece My Secret World, a more mature and deliberate peek into Martin's living space - and more importantly, the piles and piles of amazing curiosities with which he surrounded himself.
As we are defined by our passions, Martin painting his collections of seemingly random objects, culled from his living space, may seem mundane on its face, yet reveals more to us about him than a simple self portrait could. Walt Bushman and Ducks tells us about Martin's simple love of painting all the curious people and all the little objects that he found important and necessary and fulfilling; an interior view providing an insight into his fascinatingly cluttered world.
Additional Notes & Condition Report
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