Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is open again. One has to book an entry time so that the museum can control the (tiny) crowds during the time of the virus. It’s hardly a fight to get in. Architecturally redone not so long ago with a steady but meditative touch by Frank Gehry, the AGO houses small but carefully curated collections of European and Canadian paintings, prints and photographs, impressive indigenous artwork, and an array of ever-changing special exhibits. Anticipating a chance to revisit familiar favorites, I was happily surprised by a special show of paintings by Matthew Wong.

Wong, who died by his own hand in 2019 at the age of thirty-five, was a Canadian-Chinese artist, trained in North America and Hong Kong. For all the inner turmoil he seemed to experience, Wong gained an excited following in his last few years, motored in part by Facebook. He left behind a budding and admiring reputation. In a mood of incandescent creativity, Wong produced hundreds of paintings just before his death. The AGO mounted a collection of works the curators called “Blue View.” It is a large series of oil and gouache panels depicting open scenes—an inner room, the view through a window, skies, hills. There are dozens, painted in clean blue surfaces, dotted here with stars, or crossed with trees, broken by a window or set off by a piece of furniture. Yet, but for these scattered marks of place, all blue. They press the color against the eye, or draw the viewer’s gaze into their sometimes shimmering, sometimes fluid blue depths. Wong could do the same thing with other colors too—quivering yellows and oranges, whites and reds; just not in this array. Here, all the paintings are “all blue.”

Whatever his direct influences and studies, one can see in Wong’s work the coloristic clarity and sometimes geometric collages of Matisse; the decorative richness, simplified, of Vuillard; and the looming Arctic forms of the Canadian Lawren Harris. All of these artists, including Wong, pursued their art as a feast of color, proffered on a vast serving dish of delighted and captivated sight. Whatever Wong’s inner struggles, whatever the “mournfulness” that the Alberta plains with their starry and empty spaces may have conjured for him, his paintings are not about any of this. By virtue of what they simply “are,” the panels present beauty as it is given to us from outside our conjuring altogether. That is, I believe, what color does.

Wong’s work struck me on its own terms. But I have been away from the “art world” too long, which made me susceptible to distraction by the discordant commentary of the catalogue and publicity surrounding the exhibit. Wong’s painting is interesting, we are told, because of the artist’s ­Canadian-Chinese “hybridity.” His work is said to convey tensions and embody questions of national identity and Euro-American presuppositions and prejudices. We’re told his forms represent the victimized ­experience of the outsider (whether racial or in terms of mental illness) within a society and commercial network of economically powered exclusion, but one in which social media can be a tool for emancipation; or, in more familiar terms, Wong’s is a contemporary example of human alienation or thwarted genius.

My annoyance with this commentary does not derive from art-critical disagreements. It has nothing to do with quarrels about abstract versus representational form. (Wong, like Matisse—indeed like all good ­painters—combines both.) Nor am I inclined to argue with this or that theory about the social forces that shape personal experience. Wong, like any other artist—or any other human being—is influenced by social conditions and bound to social constraints (however elusive they really are in definition). What annoys me is the compulsion to chatter in the face of beauty. Why did curators think there was a need to explain any of these stunning images?

Wong’s chromatic surfaces are both inert and vibrant. They present to us, simply and patently, the gift of the stuff of the world, from which art is made—in this case color. Obviously, one can talk about music, painting, and other works of art. But Wong’s work is nonetheless decidedly not the same thing as talk. It is the embodiment of what we see when we are alive within the world into which we have been called. The color blue is arranged and thrown into every conceivable and inconceivable order. Natural or painted, the radiance of color illumines the fact that “I” have been created and given a life. And, thus, that I have a God, to whom I turn insofar as, having created me, he has turned to me and displayed this turn.

The late poet Mary Oliver offered brilliant descriptions of the natural world. She could speak admiringly and with awe of the “blue and dark blue / rose and deep rose / white and pink” that even “weeds” bring up within the hard-worked rows of a farmer’s labor. Her point is that the farmer is—we are all—but a part of this color-dappled world. Colors are the “story of” our “life,” she writes (“Morning Glories”), even as the hues of the world themselves lack solidity. They are the f­­luid, if arresting, signs of the ebb and flow of distinction and indistinction within the tide of eternal sameness, for which the ocean is the greatest symbol. A devotee of Lucretius, Oliver was fond of insisting that the boundaries between things—between us and all the world—are contingent and transient. Toward the end of her life, she reveled in the fact that our “atoms” dissolve into the great whirl of all the atoms of the world. This was death to her, a return to the “elements,” and perhaps later an emergence into some new and glittering, if passing, configuration. And in her magnificent poems, this world of inanimate throbbing is also one of penetrating coldness and cruelty. These aching qualities can never end or be resolved, because the world itself is unendingness, holding all things in a senseless and leveling embrace.

But color is something we are not always and everywhere part of. Red, blue, and green mark distinctions. They cry out that things are different and outside our grasp. Color is something we look upon, receive. In this regard, color is a kind of grace. It comes to us from without, like all gifts; and like all gifts, it is given to us by a Giver, to change us within.

Philosophies of seeing (“optics”), from the ancient to the early modern world, were many. Despite their often antagonistic diversity, most traded on the distinction between subject and object, seers and things. Light, according to these theories, serves as a medium or sign of this distinction, and thus color is displayed in the proliferated and discrete creatures of the world, with human beings granted the humbling power to recognize and admire its radiance. Modern optics mostly dissolved this insight. By today’s account, light purportedly flows like waves about us and through us, and colors are variously perceived according to our shifting relations. Color, in our very modern world, has become a subjective way of interpreting otherwise vague and enveloping phenomena. And things, once distinct and impervious to our constructive fantasies, become ideas, the stuff not of the world but of our endless words and explication. Gone is the astonishment, wonder, humility, fear, and gratitude that color once brought us. It no longer has the character of givenness, of the unmanageable excess of reality offered from the hand of God.The domestication of color by human interpretation, theory, or some other quality of our critical analysis constitutes a terrible loss. If we “read” nature’s palate (“hybridity,” “­exclusion,” “the other,” and more) rather than relish its rich array, we diminish our capacity for wonder and praise.

It seems inevitable that Wong’s suicide is today viewed as somehow essential to his art. This is a common reaction, not only to recent artists like Nicolas de Staël or Mark Rothko, who took their own lives (both, by coincidence perhaps, devoted servants of color). We have come to interpret earlier “troubled” artists, like the seventeenth-century Emanuel de Witte (whose bleached churches were nonetheless somberly alive to shade and light), in the same way. He and other painters are catalogued by Rudolf and Margot Wittkower in their voyeuristic book on unstable artistic personalities, Born Under Saturn. But in these cases, the most one could or should say about these tortured souls is simply that their deaths contradicted their offerings, a ­contradiction to be deeply regretted, but which, in its own way, throws a still brighter light on the offering itself and its meaning: The colorful world is beautiful, not as a whole but in many shades, which are visual signs of the precious character of every given thing. We abide in the world of God’s making, where everything stands in its own given light.

The museums are open again. The world, however, never closed. Stand still and watch, ­word­lessly, gratefully.

Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.

Image by Versageek via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines