Eighty-thousand collectors, taste-makers, and looky-loos have clogged Miami Beach, clamoring to get into countless albeit exclusive Art Basel events. But at a chintzy Ocean Drive hotel, painter Emma Stern and I find ourselves unexpectedly alone, dipping our toes in a frigid pool, recovering from a busy 24 hours, and smoking cigarettes. “I’ve quit a hundred times, but I spent the summer in Europe and picked it up again,” she says, shaking her pack of Marlboros. Her 2021 tour abroad has been a whirlwind of solo shows at Carl Kostyál London, Almine Rech Paris, and Carl Kostyál Stockholm, with various presentations at illustrious art fairs throughout the continent. Though, Stern, 29, mentions none of these. Instead, she’s tapping off tobacco ash and enigmatically chatting about carnage-king Quentin Tarantino and Even Cowgirls Get The Blues by Tom Robbins.
Stern’s avatar oil paintings have caught the eyes of the art world’s largest power-players. Her subversive take on figurative art techniques studied from Caravaggio and Michelangelo bridges the masters and the digital age in a pastel universe of voluptuous characters—all of whom embody sexual tropes and likenesses often found within Reddit’s NSFW chatrooms or hentai, a niche sub-genre of animated pornography that gets more internet searches than Obama, Marvel, or The New York Times. “I wanted to pull this visual vocabulary out of these weird little corners of the internet, and as soon as you render something on canvas with oil, there’s discourse surrounding it,” she says. “Now these conversations exist in the art world, whereas the subject matter had been stuck in Behance folders on DeviantArt.”
Born in a small town in New Jersey, Stern’s affinity for the internet was a matter of retaining sanity. She, like many RAWR xD pre-teens, turned to online communities for social connection, starting with NeoPets, the hyper-popular virtual pet community. Then, one day, tragedy struck. “My [NeoPets] account got deactivated after I said ‘anus’ in a chatroom; it was absolutely devastating,” she says. Stern then transitioned to MySpace, learned Adobe Photoshop, and developed a digital persona. She created a new life, one that was older, looked a bit different, and was definitely not from New Jersey. She laughs, “I filled in the gaps that didn't feel suited to my personal narrative [and] I just started writing my own. It's really not that much different than what I'm doing now, except I'm being more straightforward that these are avatars.”
Her avatars, or “Lava Babies,” were born out of circumstance. After enrolling at Pratt Institute for her B.F.A, Stern’s classical figure education centered on nude models, sometimes hopping onstage herself to pose for her contemporaries. But, to Stern, the process felt derivative. “I was just continuing on this 500-year-old tradition of dead white guys painting naked ladies. Where do I come into this? Where's my perspective in this? It wasn't until I graduated [from] art school and was struggling with the sudden loss of resources that happens when you leave an institution that I started to address that,” she explains. “I didn't have models coming to pose for me, so I started using this character design program to make my own muses.”
She poured over hundreds of Youtube “how-to” videos trying to turn polygons into paintings. Harkening back to her strict Judaic upbringing, she found the technology acted as a playground for creation theory and mysticality, wherein she had the power to create in her image. “I'm doing my own little Book of Genesis: you start off with nothing, then put objects into the frame, and then you render it out, it's still black, because there's no light, and then you put the light on,” she says, snapping her fingers. “Day One.”
In Stern’s universe, much is possible. You can be a centaur, an elf, a teapot, or vapor if you please. She’s not opposed to having three suns in her solar system, allowing light to play around her canvas with unnatural yet divine shadows. Some of her Lava Babies exist within the same neighborhood; some are even friends. Gravity still exists. Men don’t. At least, not in a realistic or earthly way. “I have a theory that everyone wants to be a hot girl,” she says. “I think there is a fine line between who you want to fuck and who you want to embody.” (It’s not an entirely farfetched theory, as female avatars for male gamers are hitting exponential growth: Stern points to the original cyber-drag icon, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, as just one example.)
Still, in Lava Baby World, some reality does apply. You can break a leg, vacuuming exists, sometimes you have to wait for the bus when your dragon is away. The accompanying novel that she uses to track the comings and goings of Lava Babies helps Stern set ground rules and embody each of their lives. And no, we will not be allowed to see it. Not yet. Frankly, given the market’s fierce appetite for her work, it’s impossible to imagine she will have time to finish it soon. Within two days of our conversation, she would show her work at Stiltsville, an exhibition space built on stilts located a mile off the Miami coast, while her next show opens at the famed Half Gallery in February 2022. A necessity as her work has gained immense popularity. Lena Dunham, Eartheater, and the ultimate influential art collectors: the Rubell family have all co-signed the rising star—a point to which she is not immune. “All of a sudden, I have a much larger audience than I'm accustomed to. It’s a little scary; I feel vulnerable. I sometimes regret putting my face on everything and making myself a major aspect of my body of work,” she says with a nervous smile.
But with four solo shows in 10 months and nothing but critical and commercial success, it’s hard not to be excited for Stern and her self-referential work. She’s in a distinctive position where her irreverent temporary back tattoo can provide fantastic career advice not only for herself, but for all creatives: live with absolutely “No Regerts.”