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Stephen Wong: The painter who builds up landscapes ‘like Lego’


Stephy Chung, CNN Contributors: Dan Hodge, CNN and Momo Moussa, CNN

Stephen Wong openly describes himself as “greedy.” The landscape painter is referring to his appetite for absorbing as much scenery as possible during long and sometimes arduous hikes, which see him filling sketchbooks with impressions before translating them into sumptuous paintings.

Hong Kong, the 35-year-old’s home, serves as a constant muse. Its unique topography — a mix of mountains, beaches, islands and vertiginous cityscapes, all in close proximity to one another — inspire fantastical interpretations of what he encounters along the way. He has created hundreds of these striking works over the past decade, becoming one of city’s most celebrated and collected contemporary artists.

The pandemic era has ushered in a new period of creativity for Wong. Unable to travel last year, he instead produced “A Grand Tour in Google Earth” — large-scale paintings depicting places like Peru’s Machu Picchu and Japan’s Mount Fuji, the latter spread across five canvases. Without leaving his studio, he used satellite images from Google Earth and photos combed from the internet, as well as his own memories of places he had previously visited.

Now, in his next ambitious endeavor, Wong has returned his attention to Hong Kong, setting out to capture the 100-kilometer (62-mile) MacLehose Trail. Famed for its sweeping views of the territory’s dramatic countryside, the walk is broken up into 10 stages, ranging in difficulty and ascent. Running east to west through Hong Kong’s New Territories, it traverses iconic natural landmarks such as the monolithic Lion Rock and the Tai Lam Chung reservoir, better known as “Thousand Islands Lake.”

The new series, which Wong debuted this month via auction house Bonhams, includes 10 large canvases — one dedicated to each of the trail’s 10 stages — as well as eight smaller paintings and more than 30 works on paper.

While the MacLehose project is one Wong had long considered embarking on, Hong Kong’s rapid pace of development drove him to “seize the chance” and finally start work in September last year.

“I really have the feeling that everything is changing,” he says. “I can’t be sure that everything can be here tomorrow.”

Bonhams’ Head of Modern and Contemporary Art Asia Marcello Kwan, who curated the exhibition, describes Wong’s artistic language as surreal and very easy to understand. But the painter’s incorporation of first-person memories also makes his style very personal, added Kwan, who thinks a recent flurry of activity in Wong’s career — showing at the Art Basel art fair and prominent local galleries in the last 18 months, all while zealously painting — comes through in his newer works.

“His color tone has changed completely compared to (his) early years, from more earthy to extremely colorful,” Kwan said in a phone interview — a shift he thinks “is a conclusion of his artistic achievement of the past 10 years.”

Trail impressions

Hiking with Wong provides insight into his meditative process. Every so often he stops for 5 to 10 minutes to quickly draw whatever catches his eye, a method he prefers to taking photographs.

“Nowadays, especially with technology, we have so many ways of very accurately capturing scenery, by taking photos on iPhones,” he says. “But it’s too fast for me.

“I like to memorize it by hand. Even though it’s not that accurate, it really helps me understand the scenery more deeply.”

At the Shing Mun Reservoir, the start of the MacLehose Trail’s seventh stage, he fervently sketches Hong Kong’s highest peak, the 3,140-foot Tai Mo Shan, against the thin, wispy clouds. “I always like to express the relationship between the landscape and the sky,” he remarks, pointing out the contrast between the hard mountains and soft clouds.

Later in the hike he pauses to sketch tall, verdant trees that at first seem unremarkable, given their ubiquity along the trail. But Wong is drawn to how this particular cluster divides the scenery in two — mountains to its left and the manmade reservoir and high-rises to the right. “I really like (these) types of conversations,” he adds.

Sergio Koo, a friend and collector of Wong’s work, joined him for about half of the MacLehose’s 10 stages. For Koo, hiking with the painter gives him the opportunity to discover parts of the landscape that he, as an avid runner, typically speeds past.

“It’s interesting to see how he puts (certain) experiences in the painting,” Koo says over the phone, picking out sights they had encountered that made their way into Wong’s paintings: a lone tree and the jagged outline of catchwater that the pair, along with another friend, had walked along.

Normally, Koo runs past the concrete channel, which marks the last stretch of the 100-kilometer (62-mile) trail, as quickly as possible.

“Now, even the most boring part of the trail becomes interesting.”

Building landscapes

Back in his studio, Wong recomposes parts of the trail using his sketches and memories from the hike. He uses his imagination to fill in the rest.

Bright, vibrant greens and contrasting colors depict everything from undulating mountain ranges to evocative pink trees with midnight-blue tops. His painting of the Sai Kung peninsula, seen from the MacLehose’s fourth stage, envisions clouds as cotton candy mounds erupting against a mint green sky, offsetting a sunset that spills into the repetitious peach-colored brushstrokes of the lapping ocean.

As well as incorporating dreamlike hues, Wong sometimes changes the orientation of key landmarks (like the reservoir in stage seven that appears to the east of Needle Hill, instead of the west), adding to the feeling of the imaginary rooted in reality.

“I’m interested in how I interpret nature, rather than the accuracy of capturing the scenery,” Wong explains. “For me it’s just like playing Lego. You build the landscape by compositions, lines and colors.”

While his canvases are remarkably immersive, the inclusion of miniature people — they are depicted hiking, doing outdoor activities, like parachuting, or even painting — play “an important role,” says Kwan, the curator.

“When you get closer, you see tiny, tiny people are actually inside the paintings,” he adds. “That’s the most beautiful part, for me.

“Of course, the landscape is wonderful. But in the end, I think it’s about humans. So although the people are so tiny, every person in the picture counts as a very important element. It’s about their journey. Stephen is looking at other people, but also at himself as one of the participants in this journey.”

Watch the video above to see Stephen Wong at work.

“Stephen Wong Chun Hei: MacLehose Trail” will be shown at Bonhams Hong Kong until March 31, with virtual tours live-streamed on Instagram.

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