Henry Shum paints under dim overhead light in his childhood bedroom. His parents’ home, where he started painting at age 14, is in the eastern New Territories of Hong Kong. He left the island for a few years to study at the Chelsea College of Arts in London, then returned in 2020 as the pandemic broke out. Given the subdued radiance of his paintings, the poorly lit studio is surprising. But Shum likes it this way, reasoning that “if you can see the painting well in a harsh environment, then in a setting where the light is proper and the wall is clean, it should look good.”
Shum always intended to move back to Hong Kong, mostly because his family is there. It helped that he was offered a debut solo show from Hong Kong’s Empty Gallery after a representative saw his thesis work. During a series of strict lockdowns over the last three years, Shum developed a distinctive working process. He begins by laying down thin layers of primer. As those layers build up, they invite a certain unpredictability to the surface. Suffused with lapis atmospheres and often accented with scarlet or chlorophyll green, his paintings feature silhouettes that appear to liquify into their surroundings; oil paint appears to bleed like watercolors. In Dream Construction (2020), two glowing cyan figures perch in front of an amber anthropomorphic fire. The surface is finished with a dry brush, which gives the faces a dusted quality.
Despite his clear skill, Shum believes the best paintings are out of his control; they have “a mystery that allows you to go in, discover, maybe reveal the painting.” Painting, he said, is “about not knowing what you’re doing. It’s about allowing the process to take over. It’s a constant exploration in the dark.” Because of lockdown, Shum lived with those paintings for an unusual length of time. “Sometimes it’s very painful, living with your work,” he told me. “It means that you’re thinking about it all the time.” The paintings appeared in a solo exhibition at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York this past November.
Lately, Shum has been experimenting with various finishes, combining dull and glossy surfaces on the same canvas. A new painting depicts one figure leading another through a marshy grove. Only from a certain angle can one see that two bands of unprimed canvas runs across the composition. There, the landscape appears gently interrupted, at once more saturated and palpable. But the ground they stand on is laid in dry, disassembling swaths, as if the whole scene is still a landscape of the mind.