Emma Webster reinvents landscape painting with VR technology – ARTnews.com

Emma Webster is not a landscape painter, but a landscape painter. The differentiation is subtle but significant, the nuance suggesting that the British-American artist’s paintings are imaginative collages depicting their own ecosystems, separate from what we might see out of a window.

Though recognizable shapes (trees, caves, flowers) abound, the final images resemble ethereal, haunting dreamscapes rather than realistic images of nature. Through her practice, she redefines painting as something that creates new relationships between artist and artwork, between artwork and viewer, between people and their (un)natural surroundings.

A suite of 11 new paintings illustrates the Los Angeles-based artist’s approach to the medium. Each of the works currently on view in Webster’s Illuminarium solo show at Perrotin’s new Seoul gallery in Dosan Park depicts a different fantastical scene, although together they could be read as a progression depicting the emergence of a landscape to its demise and represents their destruction.

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Still in the cradle (2022), for example, shows a clearing in a forest. Cool blue light illuminates the tops of nearby trees and a rocky formation in the background, but the outskirts remain darkened. Meanwhile, a small opening in the floor emits a warm amber glow. Viewing the piece gives the feeling of being in the womb before exposing yourself to the complexity of the shadowy world beyond. Later works pierce this sense of innocence.

Webster’s landscapes always walk the line between the real and the uncanny, reflecting the multi-step process through which they emerge. 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 something like digital landscape sculptures.

“VR doesn’t interest me as a purpose, but as a means of exploratory sculpture,” explains the young artist in an interview ARTnews. “My sketches are a collage of inspirations: set design, landscape painting, travel photography, fantasy and the other worldliness of screen space. VR becomes the place where I can merge these disparate things into one solid thought.”

A clearing in a forest, seemingly set at night, with a halo of light emanating from an invisible source at the center.  The light illuminates trees and branches hanging over a small open patch in the ground.

Emily Webster, Still in the cradle2022.

Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin

Once satisfied, Webster prints the scenes, re-physics the digital, and translates them with oil paint onto large format canvases. It’s a process rooted in tradition but shaped by technology in ways not entirely dissimilar to how many are currently going about their daily rituals.

The way the works in Illuminarium unfold seems to develop a vague narrative, much like a playwright breaks down information into discrete scenes. In fact, Webster is interested in theater and she sees parallels between lighting, set design and painting. A previous exhibition at Stems Gallery in Brussels, entitled Ready the Lanterns, found its starting point in lighting design and explored the concept of the nocturne, most commonly used to refer to musical compositions evoking the night. She wondered: What if “night” simply meant a lack of sunlight? Their investigation opened up a broader meaning to the term. Additionally, like VR, the lighting design mimics sunlight but never really incorporates it. It is a trick intended to expand one’s own reality, just as a stage offers its audience a gateway into another world.

Painting of a swampy landscape surrounded by gnarled branches.  A red sun appears in the sky.

Emma Webster, Blue Moon2022.

Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin

“The stage is a proxy space — we’re in an auditorium as well as the location of the play,” she said. “In these paintings and in VR, we are in two places at once: like a video game meant to be populated by a player, the audience becomes interactive.”

Seeing Webster’s works means entering new worlds. Each is a room full of natural yet distorted vistas, with wiry, Dr. Seuss-like trees and squirming orchids teeming with life, ornate supernatural phenomena and landscapes that defy the laws of gravity.

Her images are haunting, referencing both the beauty of the natural world and its destruction at the hands of mankind. Ultimately, landscapes do not stand still, a fact Webster’s work reminds us time and time again.

As Webster noted, “There’s a built-in sadness [to] try to capture wildlife as these locations change and disappear. We categorize landscape painting as pleasant and boring, but there is nothing pleasant in a climate of crisis.”

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