Installation view of HENRY SHUM’s Dream Construction, 2020, oil on canvas, 181.2 × 121.2 × 5.6 cm, at “Vortices,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Michael Yu. All images courtesy the artist and Empty Gallery.

Enter the Void: Henry Shum’s Mystical “Vortices”

Empty Gallery
Hong Kong

The vortex-as-portal is a recurring motif that conjures the irresistible yet terrifying pull of the unknown. For poet and artist William Blake (1757–1827), it takes on a spiritual dimension as a symbol of transfigurative passage. These mysterious connotations suffuse painter Henry Shum’s “Vortices,” a fever dream of perilous journeys and mystical awakenings in Empty Gallery’s darkened sancta.

Installation view of HENRY SHUM’s Vortices, 2020, oil on canvas, 201.2 × 133.2 × 5.6 cm, at “Vortices,” Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, 2020. Photo by Michael Yu.

Blake’s influence went beyond the show’s title, as seen in Shum’s Vortices (2020), a large oil canvas of a craggy, whorled landscape seen through the ghostly silhouettes of people and a giant balloon. The near-symmetrical ridges and radiant washes of sapphire and celestine recall Blake’s striking compositional harmony and attention to color-shading, exemplified in works such as The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun (c. 1803–05). Shum’s painting is particularly impressive in its depiction of the distorted night sky and furrowed terrain on the glistening curvature of the balloon.

HENRY SHUM, Annunciation, 2020, oil on canvas, 201.2 × 133.2 × 5.6 cm.

HENRY SHUM, Ancient of Days (Descending Elephant Fish), 2020, oil on canvas, 201.2 × 133.2 × 5.6 cm.

In a cryptlike space, the towering canvases Annunciation and Ancient of Days (Descending Elephant Fish) (both 2020) echo the palette and diagonal lines of Blake’s Biblical illustration Jacob’s Ladder (c. 1799–1806), in which a sleeping Jacob dreams of women and angels on a staircase that spirals toward the sun. Rendered in rusted reds and celestial blues, Annunciation portrays a shrouded figure lying at the base of a crooked trunk that hints at Blake’s winding ascent. Next to the motionless body, a figure in a saffron-hued cloak sits up as if startled awake, looking away from the viewer at three observers on the tree. Ancient of Days acts as the work’s fraternal twin,with a fantastical elephant-headed fish contorted to mirror the S-shaped tree, and a pale orange sun as a foil to the other’s starry sky. Shum complicates the picture plane in these two works, framing the central image of each in an outlined alcove. Yet this boundary bears no relation to architectural reality. In Ancient of Days, for instance, translucent clouds and spindly twigs breach the recess, even as other elements of the scene terminate at its edges, as though the alcove is vanishing in sections. 

HENRY SHUM, New Sun, 2020, oil on canvas, 121.2 × 81.2 × 5.6 cm.
HENRY SHUM, New Sun, 2020, oil on canvas, 121.2 × 81.2 × 5.6 cm.

Elsewhere, the esoteric anti-realism of Symbolist art finds expression in New Sun (2020), in which a bright, ringed orb floats in the center of a wooded landscape bisected by a terrace. Rendered in murky purls of jade and bottle-green, the scene appears to be underwater, yet the mysterious sphere glows with a surprising sharpness. Likewise, in Before a Mirror (2020), silver starbursts dance around a faceless figure, who is framed by trees that form a perfect arc overhead offset by a diagonal-leaning trunk, recalling the composition of Annunciation and Ancient of Days. Evoking the changing atmosphere of twilight, the background is split into neatly dissolved sections, from a cerulean sky to a soft sunset yellow that sinks into the fresh green grass.  

Shum’s darkly imaginative paintings were well-served by the design of the gallery, where the addition of archways and candlelit niches lent a gothic sensibility to the show. The architecture was used to spellbinding effect in the installation of Dream Construction (2020), which suddenly blazed into view through a high archway as one turned through a dark passage. In the painting, two ice-blue silhouettes clamber into (or out of) a turquoise gondola that appears to be melting into the watery depths, as a wall of flame rises from the vessel, along with spectral faces that peer out at the viewer. 

Shum’s nightmarish visions of eerie landscapes and ghosts pay homage to Dark Romanticism and Symbolism with captivating originality, lingering in the mind long after one exits the byzantine space. Blinking on the sunlit pavement after this stygian sojourn, I thought of the lone figure described by poet and critic Jean Moréas in the “Symbolist Manifesto” (1886), the protagonist moving “in circles distorted by his clean hallucinations, his constitution; in this distortion lies the only reality.”

Ophelia Lai is ArtAsiaPacific’s associate editor.  

Henry Shum’s “Vortices” was on view at Empty Gallery, Hong Kong, from September 26 to November 21, 2020. 

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