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Saturating familiar sights with fantasy, Stephen Wong's arresting landscapes of Hong Kong's waterfalls and peaks open into worlds unknown, inviting viewers on a journey.

Dream Journey in Stephen Wong’s Landscapes

Stephen Wong, Lugard Road and the Victoria Harbour (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 150 x 200 cm. Courtesy Unit London.

In Wong's work, both travelling and the acts of making and viewing a painting are closely connected, taking after the concept of 'Dream Journey' in traditional Chinese painting, whereby a person can imagine faraway destinations by looking at a painted landscape.

While Wong encountered the idea during his time at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, he abstained from painting, considered old-fashioned at the time, opting for installations and conceptual works. It was after graduating in 2008 that he returned to painting landscapes, experimenting with the scenery from video games.

Stephen Wong, The Torii (Playstation 3: Initial D) (2008). Oil on canvas. 140 x 210 cm.

Stephen Wong, The Torii (Playstation 3: Initial D) (2008). Oil on canvas. 140 x 210 cm. Courtesy the artist.

In Wong's early work, trees are sometimes relegated to the background, as with the overall grey view of a racing track in The Torii (Playstation 3: Initial D) (2008), or the stone pavement and walls that dominate The old fortress (2012).

Nature becomes the focal point in later paintings like The Trees at Fo Tan Mountain (2013), which renders trees and foliage from a light industrial area in Hong Kong as tall lines of green, brown, and yellow shades.

Stephen Wong, The Lonely Man at Po Pin Chau (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 40 cm.

Stephen Wong, The Lonely Man at Po Pin Chau (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 40 cm. Courtesy Unit London.

The timeless resonance of Hong Kong's natural landscapes continues to pervade Wong's recent paintings, currently on view at Unit London alongside his recent series of satellite-image landscapes, notably from the U.K., for his first solo exhibition in the country, Dream Travel (22 November 2022–27 January 2023).

Great detail is compressed into acrylics on canvas like Waterfall Bay (2022), where the faint stream for which the location is known scintillates against a near-empty valley, framed by a mountain and a forest that pours into the foreground. Minuscule campers can be made out by the foot of the waterfall, removed from the concrete familiarity of tall buildings populating the hills on the horizon.

Stephen Wong, Waterfall Bay (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 150 x 120 cm.

Stephen Wong, Waterfall Bay (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 150 x 120 cm. Courtesy Unit London.

Wong's affection for Hong Kong's landscapes is reflected in these details, resulting from close observation during his hikes in the city's countryside. Vivid palettes entrap the eye, suggesting there is something alive within every element and being, be it cascading waterfalls, shifting clouds, or even the fluorescent pavement.

Nonetheless, the artist steers clear from photographic reproduction to present his own interpretations. Wong has compared his method of constructing landscapes to building with Lego blocks, starting with a road perhaps, a mountain, then a tree. The excess of unnatural or saturated colours imbues his work with an oneiric quality, as with the shimmering purple stream skipping down a rocky mountainscape to meet the pink road in Lugard Fall and Lamma Island (2022).

Stephen Wong, Lugard Fall and Lamma Island (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 180 x 130 cm.

Stephen Wong, Lugard Fall and Lamma Island (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 180 x 130 cm. Courtesy Unit London.

Against Wong's vast landscapes, brief hints of civilisation—a ship steering away into the horizon in Lugard Fall and Lamma Island—can be a comfort to find. Far-away figures, buildings, and modes of transportation entice the eye into a game of play and seek, slowing down the act of looking to follow the artist's movement on foot as he sketches along the way to imprint the surroundings in his mind.

The effect is striking in large-scale works like the quadriptych Sai Kung Sea in late summer (2022), which highlights the peninsula's layered topography at different times of the day. Roads and beaches, dotted with small cars and parasols, pave the path to a journey into the expansive landscapes of mountain ridges, forests, and the sea, overseen by crisp blue skies and purple clouds.

Stephen Wong, Sai Kung Sea in late summer (quadriptych) (2022). Acrylic on canvases. 200 x 600 cm.

Stephen Wong, Sai Kung Sea in late summer (quadriptych) (2022). Acrylic on canvases. 200 x 600 cm. Courtesy Unit London.

During the pandemic, Wong kept travelling, if only through memory and satellite images from Google Earth. A Grand Tour in Google Earth, his solo exhibition at Hong Kong's Gallery EXIT in 2021, saw the artist visit Mount Fuji and a national park in California without leaving his studio.

At Unit London, small-scale paintings depict well-known landmarks across the U.K. from Stonehenge to Hyde Park and the Isle of May. Plastic cars accompany each work, petite enough to enter the landscapes, as with Google Earth Road Trip to UK: Pier of Brighton (2022), where the yellow car in the painting doubles as a toy car outside the canvas.

Stephen Wong, Google Earth Road Trip to UK: Pier of Brighton (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 40 cm.

Stephen Wong, Google Earth Road Trip to UK: Pier of Brighton (2022). Acrylic on canvas. 30 x 40 cm. Courtesy Unit London.

From Hong Kong to the U.K., Wong's striking interpretations of familiar scenery prompts us to slow down, and take a closer look. The artist's imaginative compositions express an appreciation for natural and human environments, whether real or fictional—at home, or abroad. —[O]

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