Stephen Wong: artist who creates landscapes of Hong Kong “like Lego”

Stephen Wong openly refers to himself as “greedy”. The landscape painter is referring to his craving for absorbing as much scenery as possible on long and sometimes arduous hikes when he fills sketchbooks with impressions before turning them into sumptuous paintings.

Hong Kong, home of the 35-year-old girl, serves as her constant muse. Its unique topography – a combination of mountains, beaches, islands and dizzying urban landscapes in close proximity to each other – inspires fantastic interpretations of what it encounters along the way. Over the past decade, he has created hundreds of these astounding works, becoming one of the city’s most celebrated and highly collectible contemporary artists.

The era of the pandemic ushered in a new creative period for Wong. Unable to travel last year, he instead created Google Earth’s Big Journey, large-scale paintings depicting places like Machu Picchu in Peru and Mount Fuji in Japan, the latter scattered across five canvases. From the comfort of his studio, he used satellite images from Google Earth and photographs from the Internet, as well as his own memories of places he had previously visited.

Video: Watch Stephen Wong film Hong Kong’s famous McLehose Trail Credit: CNN

Now, in his next ambitious endeavor, Wong has turned his attention back to Hong Kong, intent on capturing the 100-kilometre (62-mile) McLehose Trail. Known for its stunning views of the area’s dramatic countryside, the walk is divided into 10 stages, varying in difficulty and elevation. Passing from east to west through the New Territories of Hong Kong, it crosses iconic natural landmarks such as the monolithic Lion Rock and Tai Lam Chung Reservoir, better known as the Thousand Island Lake.

I am interested in how I interpret nature, not in the accuracy of the rendering of landscapes.

Stephen Wong, landscape painter

The new series that Wong debuted this month through the auction house Bonhamsincludes 10 large canvases, one dedicated to each of the 10 stages of the trail, as well as eight smaller paintings and over 30 works on paper.

While the MacLehose project had long been considered by Wong, the fast pace of Hong Kong’s development prompted him to “seize the chance” and finally get to work last September.

“I really have a feeling that things are changing,” he says. “I can’t be sure that everything will be here tomorrow.”

Bonhams Asian Head of Contemporary Art Marcello Kwan, who curated the exhibition, describes Wong’s artistic language as surreal and very easy to understand. But the artist’s incorporation of first-person memories also makes his style very personal, added Kwan, who believes that the recent surge in Wong’s career – showings at Art Basel and prominent local galleries over the past 18 months – has been painting diligently all the while – – this is manifested in his new works.

“His color tone has completely changed from (his) early years, from more earthy to extremely bright,” Kwan said in a phone interview – a change he believes “is the result of his artistic accomplishments over the past 10 years.”

McLehose Trail Stage 5. “In a landscape, the sky is a very important element in controlling the whole feel of the landscape,” Wong says. Credit: Courtesy Bonhams

Impression of the tracefrom

Hiking with Wong gives insight into his meditative process. From time to time, he stops for 5-10 minutes to quickly draw anything that catches his eye, a method he prefers to photography.

“Today, especially thanks to technology, we have so many ways to capture a landscape very accurately by photographing it on an iPhone,” he says. “But it’s too fast for me.

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

Hairpin bend at Mount Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong

Hairpin bend at Mount Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong Credit: Chunip Wong/E+/Getty Images

High Island Reservoir in Sai Kung Country Park next to natural hexagonal rock formations.

High Island Reservoir in Sai Kung Country Park next to natural hexagonal rock formations. Credit: Chan Long Hei / SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images

Artist's interpretation of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong's highest peak.

Artist’s interpretation of Tai Mo Shan, Hong Kong’s highest peak. Credit: Courtesy Bonhams

At Shing Mun Reservoir, at the start of the seventh leg of the McLehose Trail, he passionately paints Hong Kong’s highest peak, the 3,140-foot Tai Mo Shan Mountain, against a backdrop of thin wispy clouds. “I always like to express the connection between the landscape and the sky,” he notes, pointing to the contrast between hard mountains and soft clouds.

Later in the hike, he pauses to sketch tall green trees that seem unremarkable at first glance, given their ubiquity along the trail. But Wong is drawn to the way this particular cluster divides the landscape in two—mountains to its left, and an artificial reservoir and skyscrapers to its right. “I really enjoy (those) types of conversations,” he adds.

Clouds hang low in Wong's image of the second leg of the McLehose Trail.

Clouds hang low in Wong’s image of the second leg of the McLehose Trail. Credit: Courtesy Bonhams

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

“It’s interesting to watch him portray (certain) experiences in a painting,” Koo says over the phone, picking out the species they encountered that ended up in Wong’s paintings: a lone tree and jagged watershed outlines that the couple, along with another friend, walked together.

Ku usually runs past the concrete canal that marks the last leg of the 100-kilometer (62-mile) trail as quickly as possible.

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

Toward the upper left of the picture of Stage 10 of the MacLehose Trail, the viewer can see the jagged outline of the watershed near the block group of buildings and Castle Peak.

Toward the upper left of the picture of Stage 10 of the MacLehose Trail, the viewer can see the jagged outline of the watershed near the block group of buildings and Castle Peak. Credit: Courtesy Bonhams

Construction landscapes

Back at his studio, Wong recreates parts of the trail using his sketches and memories of 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 rose trees with dark blue tops. In his painting of the Sai Kung Peninsula, seen from the Maclehose Fourth Step, the clouds are depicted as mounds of cotton candy erupting against a minty green sky, offsetting the sunset that spills into the repeated peach strokes of the lapping ocean.

Wong's scale painting of the fourth section of the MacLehose Trail.

Wong’s scale painting of the fourth section of the MacLehose Trail. Credit: Courtesy Bonhams

Sandy beaches of the Sai Kung Peninsula in Hong Kong.

Sandy beaches of the Sai Kung Peninsula in Hong Kong. Credit: Ian Hunter/EyeEm/Getty Images

In addition to incorporating dreamlike hues, Wong sometimes changes the orientation of key landmarks (such as the reservoir in stage seven, which appears east of Needle Hill instead of west), heightening the sense of the imaginary rooted in reality.

“I’m interested in how I interpret nature, not in the accuracy of capturing the landscape,” Wong explains. “For me, it’s like playing with Lego. You build a landscape out of compositions, lines and colors.”

While his canvases are surprisingly immersive, the inclusion of miniature people — they are depicted hiking, outdoors, skydiving, or even painting — play an “important role,” says curator Kwan.

“When you get closer, you see tiny, tiny people actually inside the paintings,” he adds. “This is the most beautiful part for me.

Detailed view of the fourth section of the Maclehoz trail.  "I think it's in human nature to be humbled... cured," says the artist.

Detailed view of the fourth section of the Maclehoz Trail. “I think that in nature people can be humbled… cured,” says the artist. Credit: CNN/Stephi Chang

In his paintings, you can see people engaged in outdoor activities, such as hiking and, in particular, skydiving.

In his paintings, you can see people engaged in outdoor activities, such as hiking and, in particular, skydiving. Credit: CNN/Stephi Chang

“Of course, the scenery is beautiful. But at the end of the day, I think it’s about people. So even though people are so tiny, each person in the picture is considered a very important element. It’s about their journey. Steven looks to other people, but also to himself as one of the participants in this journey.

Watch the video above to see Stephen Wong at work.

“Stephen Wong Chun Hei: The McLehose Trail” will be shown in Bonhams Hong Kong until March 31, virtual tours will be broadcast live on Instagram.

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