Emma Webster is not a landscape designer but a landscape painter. The differentiation is slight but significant, with the nuance indicating that the British-American artist’s paintings are imaginative collages representing his own ecosystems, distinct from what we might see through a window.
Although recognizable forms (trees, caves, flowers) abound, the final images are more akin to ethereal, haunting dreamscapes than realistic images of nature. Through her practice, she redefines painting as something that weaves new relationships between the artist and the work, between the work and the viewer, between the human and their (un)natural environment.
A suite of 11 new paintings illustrates the Los Angeles-based artist’s approach to the medium. Each of the works, currently on display in Webster’s solo exhibition “Illuminarium,” at Seoul’s new Perrotin Gallery in Dosan Park, features a different fantasy scene, though together they can be read as a progression describing the creation of a landscape until its loss and destruction.
Still in the cradle (2022), for example, depicts a clearing in a forest. Cool blue light illuminates nearby tree tips and a rock formation in the background, but the periphery remains darkened. Meanwhile, a small opening in the floor emits a warm amber glow. Looking at the piece feels like being in the womb, before being exposed to the complexities of the dark world beyond. Later works puncture this sense of innocence.
Webster’s landscapes always walk the line between the real and the weird, reflecting the multi-step process by which they are formed. The artist begins each piece with sketches, which she then scans into a virtual reality program. There she manipulates, exaggerates and transforms her images, renders them in 3D and develops what could be called digital landscape sculptures.
“I’m not interested in virtual reality as an end, but as a means of exploratory sculpture”, explained the young artist in an interview with ART news. “My sketches are composed of a collage of inspirations: scenography, landscape painting, travel photography, fantasy and the other worldliness of the screen space. Virtual reality becomes where I can merge these dissimilar things into one solid thought. »
Once satisfied, Webster prints the scenes, making the physical digital again, and translates them onto large-scale canvases with oil paint. It’s a process rooted in tradition but shaped by technology, in a way that’s not entirely dissimilar to the way many go about their daily rituals right now.
The unfolding of the works in “Illuminarium” seems to develop a vague narration, almost like a playwright breaking up the information into discrete scenes. Indeed, Webster is interested in theater and she sees parallels between lighting, set design and painting. A previous exhibition at the Stems Gallery in Brussels, entitled “Ready the Lanterns”, found its starting point in the design of lighting and studied the concept of nocturne, which is most often used to designate musical compositions evoking the night. She wondered: What if “night” simply involved a lack of sunlight? His investigation opened up the term to a broader meaning. Also, the lighting design, like virtual reality, mimics sunlight but never actually involves it. It is an artifice intended to sublimate its reality, just as a stage offers its audience a gateway to another world.
“The stage is a proxy space – we are both in an auditorium and at the venue of the play,” she said. “In these paintings, and in VR, we are in two places at once: like a video game made to be populated by a player, the viewer becomes interactive.
To see Webster’s works is to immerse yourself in new worlds. Each is a space filled with natural but distorted vistas, with spindly Dr. Seuss-like trees and twisted orchids teeming with life, embellished supernatural phenomena, and gravity-defying landscapes.
His paintings are vividly haunting, emphasizing both the beauty of the natural world and its destruction by mankind. Ultimately, the landscapes are not in stasis, a fact that Webster’s work continually reminds us of.
As Webster noted, “There is a sadness built into [to] trying to capture wildlife, as these places change and disappear. We classify landscape painting as pleasant and boring, but there is nothing pleasant in a climate of crisis.