In Her ‘Lava Babies,’ Rising Artist Emma Stern Creates Rock Star Avatars Using Gaming Software and Oil Paint

Stern's fantasy-based works were recently on view at Almine Rech in London.

Portrait of Emma Stern, 2023.
Portrait of Emma Stern, 2023. Photograph by Jason Miller.

A few years ago, during a trip to Stockholm, the New York-based artist Emma Stern visited the ABBA Museum—a destination devoted to the famed 1970s Swedish pop band of “Dancing Queen” fame—with her mother. “My mom really wanted to go. In my mind, I knew it was going to be a sort of glorified gift shop,” she explained during a video call, “What I didn’t realize is that the whole experience is an infomercial for an ABBA live stage show that’s done entirely via holograms.”

She was intrigued. Over the past few years, Stern (b. 1992) has earned attention for what she calls her “lava babies”—plastic-looking female characters she creates using 3D software and which she then paints into flawless oil-on-canvas compositions often dominated by gradient hues of pinks and purples. These lava babies, with their exaggerated physiques and short skirts, often hint back at the 3D sculpting software’s most frequent uses—gaming avatars, pornographic animations, and fantasy.

Emma Stern, <em>Penny (This one's for you)</em> (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Emma Stern, Penny (This one’s for you) (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

For Stern, the use of holograms to stage a show hinted at questions of subversion. “ABBA has been thoroughly disbanded for decades now. It got me thinking. Agnetha and Anni-Frid, the two female members of the band, made very deliberate exits from public life. It stuck out to me—they’re no longer these rock stars, but their likenesses are continuing to tour in perpetuity, fossilized as they were in 1976.”

Stern—with her fascination for such virtual selves and inspired by her encounter at the ABBA museum—decided to create a show focused on a fictional female rock band that has been turned into holograms at the hands of a nefarious record executive. These visions manifested this past September in “Penny & The Dimes: Dimes 4Ever World Tour,Stern’s second solo exhibition at Almine Rech in London.

In these works, rock goddesses strut across stages in skimpy attire, trash hotel rooms, and cruise in limos. The paintings are slick—painted with a precision that belies the effort of their process—so that Stern’s women seem to form independently, miraculously out of mercury or plasma in fantastical hues of pinks and lavenders—rather than through the laborious process of hours spent in the studio.

“Penny & The Dimes” is Stern’s follow-up to her 2021 debut with Almine Rech, “Boy, It Feels Good to Be a Cowgirl” along with two other 2021 solo shows—“Booty!” at Half Gallery in New York, which imagined a realm of female pirates, and “Home Bodies” at Carl Kostyál in Stockholm. This recent show came on the tails of several impressive auction sales of her work. At Phillips’ New Now sale on September 27 of this year, Stern’s painting Gabbi + Susan sold for $33,020, 65 percent over its estimate. In May, the 90-by-70-inch painting Naomi 3 (2020) sold at Phillips New York for $30,480, 205 percent over its presale estimate and in April her painting Eve 2 (2020) hammered in at Sotheby’s Hong Kong at just over $42,000, 175 percent over its estimate.

Emma Stern, Daisy (banger!) (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Emma Stern, Daisy (banger!) (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

For Stern, however, the exhibition is a continuation of her ongoing investigations of what she calls both her “universe creation project” and “ongoing self-portraiture.” Stern’s interest in self portraiture is an oblique one. While studying art at the Pratt Insitute in Brooklyn, she says she found herself particularly drawn to the Surrealist artists and their muses. “But coming of age as a female figurative painter in the 21st century, I wondered how I might make that dynamic between artist and muse more relevant,” she said. Working as a live nude model for drawing and painting classes, to pay her way through school, Stern said she began to make a connection. “I was on both sides of the experience and I realized that an avatar is always a muse, and an avatar is always a self-portrait. Anything you create, even if it’s nonliteral or indirect, is a visual manifestation of some facet of yourself no matter how fantasy-driven it is,” she considered.

Rock music, she says, is no exception to that desire for self-portraiture. As a teenager, Stern, who grew up in a “stricter household” (she describes her father as a devout Jewish writer and scholar) says her interest in music was entwined with a kind of cosplay. “Pop music or bands are so specific to teenage years. Who are these characters? There is a long tradition of celebrities and rock stars being avatars. David Bowie comes to mind. Lana Del Rey is a more contemporary example,” she said, “I’m interested in characters you can slip in and out of. I’ve called it a kind of drag, but with no association to gender. I’ve always had rock star fantasy, but I have no musical talent and stage fright. I could never perform in front of an audience. It’s just completely out of the question for me. Creating these rock stars are proxies for me to live out my fantasy without the corporeal stage fright that usually would accompany that.”

Stern, whose painterly techniques are rooted deeply in tradition, says she found her way to gaming technologies as an alternative to working with a live model after college. “I did not grow up playing video games, it wasn’t allowed,” Stern said. “I think maybe because it was forbidden to me, I became interested in the aesthetics.” She notes that while many people describe her works as relating to pornography, she says those references are more a familiarity with the vocabulary of 3D gaming—poses and gestures—than to the work itself. “There isn’t really any nudity in my work,” she noted. That said, she doesn’t think “being in pursuit of hotness” says anything about one’s character. “I don’t see my work in reaction to an imagined male audience,” she said.

Emma Stern, Penny, Brandi, Destiny & Daisy (Dimes 4evr) (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Emma Stern, Penny, Brandi, Destiny & Daisy (Dimes 4evr) (2023). Courtesy of the artist and Almine Rech.

Instead, she sees her figures, almost always female, as inhabiting her own special artistic universe. Often Stern’s works draw comparisons to Lisa Yuskavage’s fantastical scenes. “What I’ve taken from her work is color. She talks a lot about the psychology of color which I’ve tried to integrate.” For Stern, her gradient palette of synthetic hues signals the very artifice of the figures themselves, their alternate plane. For her, there in lies the pleasure and the power of the lava babies.

“Growing up in an extremely religious environment, I had to discover my own relationship with the universe,” she explained. “When it comes to A.I. or gaming, as a species, we are becoming godlike because we all are creating our little worlds. When I call it a universe creation project—I am the god in that scenario. We’re all living inside simulation already and we might each be building our own. It’s a Russian doll—a world inside a world‚ mentality. An infinite number of worlds.”


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