In Emma Stern's paintings, jet-skiing pirates, bare-chested elves, and pig-nosed policewomen inhabit what seems to be a lawless metaverse. Through the use of 3D modeling programs, Stern, who affectionately refers to her fantastical characters as Lava Babies, explores the endless possibilities of image creation in the digital realm.
Despite their different looks, most of Stern's Lava Babies, all considered self-portraits, have one thing in common: they are hot – by choice. A deliberate decision that allows the artist and her babies to reclaim ‘hotness’ as a concept of self-expression rather than solely a reaction to a male point of view. Through her work Stern tells stories about her life: her experiences, her fears and fantasies. To do so, the artist allows herself to take on a variety of guises: from a high heel to a sharp dog to an erotic warrior. By combining her visual language of the digital age with oil-on-canvas techniques, the artist skillfully blends the past and the present, the traditional and the new. We had the chance to talk to the New York City-based artist and ask her some questions about her practice and her interest in gaming culture.
Please begin by briefly introducing yourself to our readers.
Hi, I’m Emma! I am an artist and writer based in New York City and online.
Who are the characters we see in your paintings?
I lovingly refer to the subjects of my paintings as Lava Babies, referring to the virtual magma-like substance they’re made of, the default material in most 3D modeling software. More formally, they are my muses and, most importantly, my avatars. I have come to recognise this body of work as an extended self-portraiture project, acknowledging that all avatars are (however indirectly) autobiographical, fictionalized iterations of ourselves. So, to answer your question, they’re all me.
Your work bridges oil-on-canvas techniques of Italian masters with the visual vocabulary of a digital age. How did you first start to combine 3D modeling methods with traditional painting?
The process was really born out of necessity. My background and training are in very traditional figurative, classical painting from a live model. When I graduated from art school and was extremely broke, having a model come to pose for me in the storage closet I was using as a studio was not a realistic possibility. A friend who was working in industrial design suggested that using 3D models could be one way to work around this obstacle. At first, I approached it exactly the same as I would a human model, but the ability to customise and to invent new figures and environments had me totally veering off of the traditional trajectory I’d been on. It took a while for me to realize that the virtualness of the figures I was painting was actually the most interesting part, a conceptual goldmine.
Where does your interest in internet and gaming subcultures come from?
I grew up in a pretty strict and religious home, I had restricted access to media and definitely was not allowed to play video games at all. In a way I think this created a fetish for the aesthetics of gaming within me. Like, it was so taboo and felt so far away from me that I really built up a psychological personal mythology, and it became sort of an obsession. Even as an adult I am not particularly interested in ‘gaming bbb’ as a hobby, but as a concept, as a visual vocabulary, it is my most essential inspiration.
Your avatars are, to some extent, all self-portraits, telling stories of your memories and lived experiences. Are the other characters you introduce, like dinosaurs, bulls, or ‘war pigs,’ also inspired by someone you know?
Every character in my paintings is a self-portrait on some level, even the pigs! That’s the cool thing about virtual selfhood; you can iterate and have multiple and disparate versions that you can shift from and blend to at will. There is a high-heeled shoe that is recurring in some of my paintings, and even that is a self-portrait in a way. I don’t even think this is unique to me and my work. I think anytime anyone makes anything, it is autobiographical, even if it’s fiction, even if it’s abstract, or even if it’s something more intangible like a piece of music or a performance.
It seems to me as if your figures are participating in some game, and the different sceneries are different levels of it. Are the narratives of your series all connected, or are you telling various different stories?
In addition to being a self-portraiture project, this body of work also functions as what I call a Universe Creation Project. I do imagine that all of these scenes and characters exist within the same universe, but maybe on different planets, or at different points in a timeline. Some characters are recurring, and some of them definitely know each other. For example, I did a show in Stockholm a few years ago called ‘Home Bodies’. It was all domestic scenes, all fantasy characters performing mundane chores and housework, and while they all seemed like they could have been pulled from totally different genres and storylines – a centaur, an Elvan princess, an angel – I wanted it to feel like they were all in different rooms of the same house.
Besides your paintings you have created NFTs, sculptures and a movie. What's next for you?
Who knows! Definitely not more NFTs though.