Painting is a wholly creative enterprise, more faithful to the calls of Composition, Light and Color than to reproductions of reality. The advent of photography freed painting from this burden, or so the story goes... One could tell a history of art as a succession of technologies that granted expressive freedom to whatever it left in the dust.
Emma Webster, a painter of landscapes though not a landscape painter—and the distinction is important—, revels in indicating that liberties have been taken. In her paintings, natural elements are distorted to an almost hallucinogenic degree. Clouds billow and bubble over, sunlight cuts through like a shard, knotty tree trunks twist and turn about, mountain lines buckle and burst forth… Here is a natural world that is nowhere to be found in nature and somehow we still assume that the reference must be grounded in physical fact, some vista somewhere which the artist has abstracted, riffed on and revised.
This, however, would be too simple a project, too aligned with the “new figuration” into which landscape as a genre would figure as yet another example of the Real filtered through a Sensibility. I speak here of Sensibility not disparagingly but factually, as an additive process or the imposition of something personal (Style) upon the universal (Nature). If we were to speak of Emma Webster’s “Style” as a figurative painter, which she is, we would be diminishing the project at hand. The contorted natural world in evidence here is not a product of an aesthetic flourish, but the thing itself.
Consider the source material for Webster’s paintings; whereas most artists would refer to life or a photograph and rely on drawing or sketching as preparatory, Webster speaks of “building.” Her landscapes are wholly constructed using Virtual Reality before being transposed to the canvas.
Previously, Webster created maquettes or dioramas as preparatory works, having more in common with a set designer in her approach than to other painters. If we entertain the cliche metaphors for painting as mirror or painting as window, (a natural fit for landscape painting), it’s clear Webster subscribes to another comparison: painting as proscenium, taking great relish in the artifice and illusion that is so specific to the theatre.
More recently, Webster’s forays into VR imaging have lent an even more heightened unreality to the works, a quality brought on by the ability to traverse these invented spaces cinematically, to change vantage points dramatically, to give experiential depth to the works. Whether her approach has been sculptural (maquettes) or digital (VR), in both she insists on flattening fleshed out spaces into a two-dimensional object: a painting, giving pixels the historical patina of painting and grounding it in the world of objects. In this process, these contrived landscapes are made real much in the way we must suspend disbelief in a theatre, both as actors and spectators.
Ready the Lanterns!, the title of Emma Webster’s new exhibition at Stems Gallery in Brussels, issues a kind of clarion call: to ignite the footlights as in a theatrical presentation, announcing an origin story of biblical proportions. ‘Let there be light,’ it seems to proclaim, casting daylight on a new world.
Text by Danny Kopel