Directly across from a roller-skate store in an East LA industrial park, through a poster-filled hallway kitchen and a makeshift living room flanked by racks of paints, you’ll find the two-story studio of Emma Webster. The offbeat landscapes of the 33-year-old Encinitas, Calif.-born artist have drawn comparisons, in just a few short years, to the compositions of Albert Bierstadt and John Singer Sargent, the Hudson River School and Walt Disney animations. Since the start of the pandemic, Webster’s increasingly complex tableaux — shaped as much by cutting-edge virtual reality simulations as by classical scenography and theatrical illumination — have been acquired by the Perez Museum, the ICA Miami and MOCA San Diego. At this time, Webster also mounted solo exhibitions in taste galleries such as Carl Kostyál (London), Alexander Berggruen (New York) and Stems Gallery (Brussels). The Stanford and Yale alum is currently showing her most monumental works to date in an exhibition titled Illuminarium (August 27 to October 1) at Perrotin in Seoul.
At a time in history when social systems are collapsing, the natural world is in upheaval, and people are constantly checking a reality often too surreal to comprehend, Webster’s paintings, created from digital studies of simulated environments , seem disturbingly relevant. In a way, they could be seen as profound forgeries that shed light on our current landscape of ever-changing perceptions.
“We always associate light and lighting with some level of clarity, but here it’s almost like this tease,” says Webster, who, during a July visit to her studio, is dressed in Crocs, sport shorts and a magenta Guerilla Girls t-shirt that lists “Perks of Being a Female Artist” (Not having to perform in shows with men…Knowing that your career could pick up again after you turn eighty…Being reassured that whatever type of art you do, it will be labeled feminine.) It points to an 8-foot-long canvas in the foreground with a dark, haunting valley behind which exists a bone-white valley, cotton candy skies, and towering razor-sharp peaks. “You want to get to the source of the light, but that doesn’t necessarily seem like a good place to me,” she says. “It’s a kind of bait light.”
Emma Webster, Primordial. Courtesy of the artist.
Emma Webster, Nightingale Theater. Courtesy of the artist.
The artist first dreamed up these bait-and-shoot illuminations five years ago while studying for her MFA at Yale, where she created mock-ups — dioramas the size of a puppet theater that she filled them with clay creatures and illuminated them with a flashlight. These three-dimensional works inspired the paintings of his acclaimed 2019 solo debut, Arcadia, at the Diane Rosenstein Hollywood Gallery. Webster’s trippy vignettes featured all types of Wonka-esque wild animals that animated “a malleable, multi-dimensional world where memories and fantasies intertwine and time and space expand and contract,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Before going to Yale, Webster studied art practice at Stanford, then spent a few years between the Bay Area and San Diego working on interactive advertising installations via apps, bus wraps and billboards for companies like YouTube and Google, and designing theater sets for Théâtre La Jolla. During a Hurricane Katrina production, where the actors were forced to navigate between an actual body of water and a moving set, she got her first idea of the “mini-set” process she would pull off. at Yale. She had another breakthrough after virtual reality artist Wyatt Roy, a former Stanford classmate, came to stay with her at Yale in 2018. He scanned the models in his New Haven studio and made them an exploratory video game, which allowed users to interact. with his work. Then, in 2020, Roy sent Webster his Oculus glasses. Using a few YouTube videos, she learned how to digitally model her models in the VR program Blender. During the pandemic, she honed her skills, digitally recreating everything from a diorama of a Claude Lorraine painting to a photo she took on an Encinitas beach. This manipulated beachscape ended up being part of a painting currently on display in Seoul.
“When I moved from tangible models and started creating things on the computer, the physics were completely different,” says Webster. Indeed, by giving us glimpses of stylized vantage points in his semi-fictional worlds, Webster challenges the very foundations of landscape painting. With each work, she asks the question: how to capture, or should we capture the natural world, around 2022?
“Landscape painting is really a story of space and how we perceive it and where things are against a horizon,” she says. “What interests me are the ways we are used to being lied to and the ways we are not.” For his exhibition at Perrotin, Webster removed all references and depictions of humans and animals from his canvases, further blurring the line between reality and virtual reality. But during our visit, I am sure to recognize faces and shapes. When I show two humans kissing in a slender promenade, Webster just laughs and wonders about the origins of my projections.
“For me, trying to find things that we recognize means we’re not in a stable place, which I think is the most important part of it all,” she says. Webster tries to replicate in her work what she describes as “places that aren’t places,” such as the Griffith Park Planetarium, the Long Beach Aquarium, and digital worlds in game apps. the painterly flourishes that are not creatures but part of a living landscape in a purple thicket surrounding a lighted stream in a painting titled Griffithafter the popular LA park.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m banging on glass screaming like a little kid,” Webster says of his artistic process. There is always an opening in his paintings where “you can enter this strange museum of natural history”. But after that, the experience is anything but simple. “Paintings always feel like there’s a lack of oxygen,” Webster says. “Like if you take the plunge, you’re going to be in space and explode.”