Interview with Emma Webster, “Kate, This is About Us” at Classic Cars West

by admin on July 31, 2013

Emma Webster had just completed the suite of paintings for her upcoming solo exhibition when she welcomed Oakland Art Enthusiast to her live/work studio in the heart of downtown Oakland. The room at the end of a long hallway bordered by the large paintings going into the show is swathed in clear plastic tarpaulin, colored with expressive brushstrokes, paint drips and figure studies. “I know I’m not getting my deposit back,” she laughs and shrugs her shoulders. But like many studios, it reveals much about the practice within: where at the surface others may see confusion and a little bit of chaos, there lies underneath clarity of reason and constructed order perhaps only visible to the artist.

Although at times a cramped space, Webster’s apartment-cum-workspace places her right in the middle of a lively city where she thrives. “I work just across from the police station, so my neighborhood is often saturated with demonstrations and protests. It’s also right on the border between Chinatown and Old Oakland – there is a strange fusion of imagery and people that results in this cacophony of noise and color. I pick up a lot of funny and strange tchotchkes from neighboring stores and bring them into my studio, so I am constantly surrounded by objects and images relevant to my focus. Above all I love working in Oakland, it feels like an art pressure cooker. Everything buzzes with energy – anything can happen here. ”

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Emma Webster’s downtown Oakland studio

Webster’s art explores complex aspects of relationships: the ‘me’ versus the ‘us,’ as well as the shifting dynamics of relationships, when loved ones can become almost strangers. For her upcoming solo exhibition, “Kate, This is About Us: Paintings When We Were Close” at Classic Cars West opening during August Oakland Art Murmur, Webster uses personal experiences to explore the unique relationship between siblings at crucial moments growing up. She and her sister Kate are just 15 months apart in age, but, Webster reveals, much more separates them now. “When you’re a kid, your sibling is your best friend in the world, but it’s a forced friendship in a way. Sometimes they’re your only playmate, you seem to go everywhere with them stuck in the back seat of the car together.” The process of becoming an adult creates an intriguing paradox; that the more choices you make and develop your ‘self,’ the greater risk it’ll be at odds with and distance you from others once close. She utilizes family photographs and home videos of the childhood they shared to poignantly illustrate how starkly it contrasts to who they are now. While watching the video on her website, she says, “It’s strange to say this is me and this is Kate. We’ve changed in every way.” Rendered in childlike mediums of finger-paint, acrylics and markers, “In The Dresses Our Mother Made Us” shows figures in dainty shoes with a playful puppy at their feet (Webster’s first pet who passed when she went to college), brightly-colored but abstracted, smeared like a treasured memory growing more vague each passing year.

These new paintings for Classic Cars West are the most literal, figurative pieces she’s done in the last six years. Once a prolific (and award-winning) figurative painter, Webster alternated between abstraction and the figurative, analyzing her subject matter and practice with this bold experimentation. “When form and color alone guided my paintings, I was shocked to see how much my emotions pervaded the canvas. It was only when I completely abandoned pictorial depictions of people that I realized how much of my work is about the sentiment behind relationships. Slowly and warily in 2011 I brought back abstracted subjects that acted as aliases to explore/contain the questions I was trying to address. We will see how my process develops from here, but I am curious to further explore how I can push the line between figurative and abstract painting.”

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“Training Wheels ” in “Kate, This is About Us: Paintings When We Were Close”

A recent graduate of Stanford University, Webster studied painting with prominent artists Enrique Chagoya, Xiaoze Xie, Jody Maxmin, and Kevin Bean. “Since the undergraduate art department was so small,” she said, “I really got to suck the marrow out of the university. I went kind of crazy my senior year, and spent almost half of my year’s coursework in one-on-one painting independent studies with Enrique and Xiaoze. Enrique’s words of wisdom, “get free!!” will be forever burned into my brain.” She is the first undergraduate who has exhibited at the Cantor Arts Center while a student. “Artistic inspiration doesn’t necessarily comes from art, so I enrolled in everything, from poetry, the science of perception, modern history, computer science (mind you, the intro ones), and even a course on the pre-natal development of the face,” she says. Although Stanford formed her artistic practice, it was a year-long intensive program at Academy of Art University where she found her voice and creative drive, and obtained some foundational tools. Studying abroad in London at the Slade School of Fine Art and l’École d’Art Plastique in Paris were equally enlightening.

Webster was also commissioned to create an outdoor mural in their beer garden space. This will be one of many the artist has completed locally and internationally. “I started mural-painting in college around the same time that my canvases doubled, tripled in size,” she says. “I create large works, murals and canvases, to offer a place viewers can escape to – some sort of hypothetical dreamscape…” Webster’s mural in Classic Cars’ beer garden provides an alluring complement to surrounding work by male street artists Cannon Dill, EON 75, Ernest Doty, David Polka and Thomas Christopher Haag. “I’m interested in a new type of public painting that doesn’t so heavily rely on ‘masculine,’ linear, flat portraiture or typography,” she says. “I want my murals to explore a new type of public painting, where the wall is an extension of the canvas. I am able to do the same type of action painting I would in the studio: throwing paint, finger painting, dripping, smearing, and bleeding washes, scribbling with markers. In that way, painting on a wall of this magnitude is the ideal free space – it’s mental. It’s loud. And it’s personal, in a massive public space.”

Emma Webster, “Kate, This is About Us: Paintings When We Were Close” will be at Classic Cars West August 2 through September 21

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Emma Webster