EMERGING: Artist Sterling Wells Creates Post-Natural Landscape Paintings

Sterling Wells painting in Bear Creek.
(Courtesy the Artist)

EMERGING is a regular column where ARTINFO spotlights an up-and-coming artist.

“When looking at a painting, you lose yourself in an imagined world,” artist Sterling Wells told ARTINFO. Yet his work takes this idea a bit further than most artists, basing his detailed watercolor landscapes on miniature fabricated environments that he builds within his studio.

“The falseness connects them to painting, in that I’m inventing an artificial world within a frame, and to entertainment,” he elaborated. “Like watching a movie, going to a theme park, or looking at the dioramas at a natural history museum, I also want my art to be temporarily immersive and transporting.”

Born in New York City in 1984, Wells moved to Florida at a young age and grew up in St. Petersburg. He went on to study painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was drawn to the derelict industrial areas on the edges of Providence. He loved working outside where he could become “attuned to the colors of the world, the way the light changes over the course of a day.” However, he became frustrated by the limitations of painting. “I initially wanted to make my own natural environments in order to control the light, and because I wanted to paint a purely natural landscape, but none was easily available,” he explained. “Painting from observation seemed too passive — I wanted to engage directly with the environment, and actively create new realities.”

He moved back to New York after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2007, and now maintains a studio in Red Hook, where he builds sculptural environments that he uses as models for his paintings, and also art on their own. He continues to work outside, painting en plein air in the middle of creeks or in the rain with a tarp over his head. Only now he also paints in a studio cluttered with rocks, paint, and warped car parts, where he tends to a small greenhouse and the often post-apocalyptic feeling of nature overtaking abandonment in the Red Hook seeps in. His interest in the overlap between natural and built environments is also what led to one of his ongoing sculptural environments called “Caryatid,” referring to the human-shaped columns that originated in ancient Greece. Surrounded by tropical plants, it is both a person and a 10-foot-tall waterfall, cascading down over a form made from wrecked car bumpers. 

“I love getting really close to paintings so they fill my field of vision, and I can experience the texture of the paint. My sculptures attempt to create this experience in real space, while simultaneously emphasizing the messy artifice that creates the illusion.”

Wells is currently exhibiting an environment at the small Brooklyn gallery A Slender Gamut. Titled “A Structure to View Geological Time in Pictorial Space,” the “living still life” installation has ferns and moss cradled in a wooden apparatus of pumps, lights, and a water basin that serves as the fragile ecosystem’s life support machine. Wells sees this manmade construction, which is “so materially artificial in comparison with the plants, yet is also creating the circumstances for life to grow,” as a reminder of the complex relationship between people and nature. It is also an omen of a possible future, where nature may not exist naturally at all.

To see images of Sterling Wells's art, click on the slideshow.