Trade Winds by Brent Wong

Art + Object Catalogue, Important Paintings and Contemporary Art Auction, 2015

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The northeast and southeast trade winds meet at the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone known by sailors as the doldrums. In the doldrums when the prevailing winds are calm sailing boats can be trapped at sea for days or even weeks.

Was Brent Wong down in the doldrums when he painted Trade Winds? The grey edge of a stone building overlooks a landscape of barren hills. Above the hills, a cumulus cloud formation. And above the clouds, a monolithic architectural fixture dominates the listless sky. What is it? The fixture is grey as concrete, lightly tinted by clouds. It is painted adjacent to the stone building like a corbel that might have broken free from the edge and been heading downwind before becoming trapped in the doldrums when the winds were calm.

Days. Weeks. Indoors. In the late sixties a prolonged period of illness enabled Brent Wong to work full-time as a painter. He then lived in a flat above his Uncle’s shop on Vivian Street in central Wellington. “The buildings of the inner city, their rooftops and architectural ornament some of them seen from his window and indeed that window itself – constitute dominant recurring motifs throughout his entire mature body of work,” writes Neil Rowe in an Art New Zealand article from 1979. That maybe so, but it does little to explain the futuristic sensibility that defines Wong’s unusual oeuvre.

Wong is the navigator between two worlds: the hard-edged realists that brought New Zealand’s empty landscape sharply into focus and the Surrealists like Magritte who used exquisite technical detail to conjure extraordinary states of mind. He was caught between a rock and a hard place; from it he struck gold. His uncanny paintings of free-floating architectural structures from the late sixties prefigured our contemporary moment of abstract modelling and 3-D printing; entire lives caught in ‘the cloud.’

Wong completed Trade Winds in 1969. It was the year Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Coverage of the landing on videotape was flown from Sydney to Wellington by the RNZAF for broadcast across the country. Closer to home, the Nippon clip-ons were added to Auckland Harbour Bridge widening the lanes from four to eight. Historically, the trade winds were used by the captains of sailing ships to cross oceans, establishing new trade routes between the continents. The Escher-like structure in Wong’s Trade Winds suggests an altered relationship to gravity. The sky can now be crossed like the ocean. A new trade route has opened up.

1969 was also the year of Wong’s first solo show at the Rothmans Gallery in Wellington. He exhibited just twelve paintings. The impact of the show was immediate. Wong became established almost overnight as an important painter in the local scene. He was twenty-four years old. But it is these paintings of unmoored architectural forms – most completed between 1967 and 1972 – that have endured. Caught between time and tide, the unspecified cargo in Wong’s Trade Winds continues to confound us.