Emma Stern

Emma Stern on pirates, pinups, and the virtual self

Emma Stern, Shelly, Ursula + Sandy (Roving Gang), 2022, oil on canvas, 76 x 72".

The Jolly Roger flies in the East Village—or some pastel fantasy of it, the skull and crossbones glazed with sunset pinks above a rippling, mirrored sea, flapping in the breeze over the entrance of Half Gallery. This is piracy, Emma Stern style. The artist is known for shapely, shaded tableaux in oil on canvas that, merging then and now, draw on images from her ever-expanding cast of comely gray 3-D avatars. This time, a trio of glassy-eyed babes don swashbuckling skirts and boots, grip pistols and cutlasses, and maraud shores inundated with high camp and high water. Scourged by the promise of a deluged New York and a lawless metaverse, Stern’s women are nevertheless lushly rendered, unapologetically beautiful, and ultimately having a great time. “Booty” is on view at from March 3 to April 1, 2022.

THESE ARE PORTRAITS OF AVATARS, and avatars are always about fantasy. I got really interested in pirates during Hurricane Ida, when the city was completely flooded. The images I was seeing on social media at the time were totally apocalyptic but visually so rich. I started to imagine what city life would be like when it’s partially underwater, in fifty to a hundred years. And then I learned that there used to be tons of pirates along the coast of New York City. And because this is my universe that I’m building, they’re all sexy pirate babes, because why the hell not, right? Their names are Ursula, Shelly, and Sandy. I suppose I should have named them all after hurricanes. I created these three specifically for this show, but I also have some recurring characters I’ve made that I often return to for different projects. As a whole, I think of all of them as belonging to an extended self-portraiture project.

I felt like there had to be like a single element that lets you know that this is not happening in the 1600s. I love to mix different fantasy genres, the classical and the contemporary. I did a show in Paris where it was a cowgirl and a dragon. A lot of these are pinup references. I mean, look at this one with the jet ski as the final scene, the riding off into the sunset. Jet skis are inherently so stupid. And I think art should be fun, and I needed there to be a jet ski painting. I couldn’t live with myself if there wasn’t.

To develop each painting, I create the character in 3-D space, then pose it and then export it into a virtual environment, which is where I do the lighting and the texture and the color and the environmental elements. It’s a universe-building project. I think back on my childhood, tapping on the glass of a fish tank and directing the fish to move around. I’d change out the corals and the gravel and everything. I guess that was my first interest in world-building. My dream project would be to make an interactive, gamified, time-based work. But VR technology is really not that good right now. It’s hideously ugly. I would rather wait, because I think it’ll happen faster than people think, and because I can't make an ugly game. It would be antithetical to all I stand for.

Emma Stern, Shelly + Sandy (Wild Things), 2022, oil on canvas, 96 x 72".

When you first start playing with digital sculpting tools, you start with this kind of ball of virtual clay. I just started calling it lava. So I call my subjects Lava Babies. The material is actually very pale gray, but the way that I light it makes it appear multicolored and iridescent. But the floor and their clothes and their hair and their eyes and their face—all of it—is made of the same stuff. It’s not skin, they have no bones. I think about Carl Jung writing about quicksilver, this amorphous material that can take any shape and multiply itself. And avatars are shape-shifters, but also containers, humans by proxy. 

Gaming and software and 3-D design are very male-dominated fields. There’s this very specific group of people essentially populating cyberspace in real time, and they’re making their idealized version of a virtual female. We’re still in the beginning stages of populating cyberspace with our virtual selves, and I already see us making the same mistakes there that we’ve made in real life. But I think there is some reclamation that can happen, some timely subversion that our culture is ready for now. I’ve zeroed in on reappropriating these ideals as a female artist, as a portrait painter, as someone who’s essentially working in the five-hundred-year-old tradition of old dead white guys doing oil paintings of beautiful women.

The character design software I’m working with was very clearly developed by men. If there was a woman in the room, she was definitely outnumbered. And this is software for people who build software, people who make games. So it’s coming from the top down. I talk about Laura Croft a lot. It was hard for them to get Tomb Raider made because their target audience was teenage boys and men in their twenties. They thought no one was going to want to play as a girl. And then, you know, it turns out everyone wants to play as a girl if her boobs are big enough. I think there’s a lot of overlap between who you want to be and who you want to have sex with. So there’s this inherent drag element to avatars. When Tomb Raider came out, it meant that millions of teenage boys were playing in drag. This is my pirate drag, basically. And it’s my universe. If you don’t like it, you can go make your own.