Welcome to the weird and magical land of Emma Stern, who also goes by the name of Lava Baby on Instagram. It's where Emma's Lava Babies live. Her digitally produced avatars are curvy, female and styled in bright, vibrant colours (especially pinks). Usually, these women will be riding about on dragons, leisurely floating in pools, playing sports, drinking, cleaning or making music. The usual activities, really.
Emma's surreal and vivid world has now been compiled into an exhibition named Booty!, which opened earlier this month at Half Gallery, based in New York City. She's composed nine new artworks, all of which portray her distinctive style that combines both figurative portraitures with more digital conceptualisations – the parts that look a little fake or too bizarre to see in the real world.
In terms of her background, Emma went to art school and learned the techniques behind the traditional nude, studying male artists and their depictions of the female nude. Questioning her stance and role amongst it all, she decided to approach the more traditional style of painting with her own personality and interests, which is far removed from the male gaze. "I've been making art my entire life," she says, "but I got seriously interested in classical oil on canvas as a teen. The interest in figuration was always there."
After which, she worked as a nude figure model at art schools and in drawing classes across the city, which is how her interests in the medium officially began. "I think that may have been what ultimately triggered my interest in the artist/muse relationship, which is still the crux of the body of work I'm making now. As soon as it occurred to me that I could use 3D technology to build my own muses, my first Lava Baby was born, and I began the creative tangent I'm on now."
Of how she goes about creating one of her pieces, Emma describes the process as "contemporary portraiture made possible by 3D software". She merges the old with the new, harnessing the power of tech to elevate her portraiture to more fantastical places. In fact, she uses the same tools intended for game developers to build her virtual female models. "My work aims to emphasise and exacerbate the apparent inclination towards pornographic (or at least porn-adjacent) representations of women in 3D communities and gaming culture," she adds. "Persistent themes include subversion, perversion, fantasy and a unique kind of off-brand feminism vaguely reminiscent of pop-up adds of the 'You Won't Last 5 Minutes In This Game' variety."
A wonderful meeting of digital and analogue processes, Emma's work has a supernatural quality. The shiny renders of the women; the perfect gradients in the background; the detailed expressions; everything has been done considerably and with great attention to detail. "I try to be careful not to explicitly criticise or critique any of the subcultures I allude to in my work," she explains. "I mean, I borrow so much of their visual vocabulary that there is obviously something about the aesthetics that I genuinely appreciate. When you set something free into the world, you can't control how it gets interpreted. I just try to make beautiful things."
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