Gary Wong
Homeland Security: Boxes and Skins 

On View January 27, 2024 - March 9, 2024

Saturday March 2, 2024 | 4-6pm 

A Dialogue with Gary Wong and Sam Sweet with QnA.

Gary Wong has always maintained that the images he creates are not political statements but merely reflective of a life of social, cultural, and artistic observation. They are also the result of solving the problem intrinsic in the materials of Abstract Expressionism. To Wong, a student of artists Emerson Woelffer and Matsumi Kanemitsu, it is the problem and the answer at the same time. You have to work it out - squeeze it out of the brush.

That being said, this body of work is both metaphorical in terms of the artist’s struggle, as an outsider, an Asian American, and an iconoclast, as well as directly referencing this country’s changing of borders actual, virtual, and imagined/re-imagined. Most particularly, the impact of these changing borders on America’s indigenous tribes and the intersection of Manifest Destiny, the California Gold Rush, and the surge in immigration in the 19th Century. Mr. Wong considers the great American Indian Chiefs and their tactical efforts to preserve their boundaries and way of life to be the original Homeland Security. The stories are personal to him, as this is where his traceable family line begins - in California, 1849.  

Wong’s legendary great grandfather, Wong Bow, was twelve years old when he sailed unaccompanied on a boat from China to California’s Golden Gate: San Francisco. His adventure included being taken under the wing of the ship’s captain (probably put to work); laboring with his uncle and cousin on some of the many big ditches, flumes, and canals of the Gold Rush era (which negatively impacted thousands of Indigenous Americans); surviving a virus that swept through the Chinese encampment and killed his uncle and cousin; and enduring another ‘adoption’ by yet another white man who owned a bottle factory in Eureka.

The particulars of much of his story lost to time, we know that Wong Bow became a rugged individualist and made a decision not to live in the city. He instead chose mountain life in Happy Camp, a small settlement in the Klamath National Forest. As Chinese were not allowed to live among white men in the towns, Wong Bow was welcomed by the local Indigenous Americans, the Kuruk. He learned their traditions, and had a family with a Kuruk woman. Now dubbed “China Bow,” he mined silver and jade, and created a pack train business, driving provisions over the mountains in all seasons between Happy Camp and Crescent City. At some point, China Bow sent for a mail-order Chinese bride, and Gary Wong’s grandfather was born in Happy Camp. 

China Bow’s immigration story and that of the family he started here is very American. It may well be both contrasting and mirroring of the stories of Native American Tribes, but it is what first brings Indigenous Americans to Mr. Wong’s consciousness. And as the Kuruk were the only California tribe to grow tobacco, it is both ironic and a tribute that Wong has created this body of work, HOMELAND SECURITY, on the cedar linings - or divider skins, of the wooden cigar boxes he has been collecting for years.

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