Young Artists 2023 Art

Painter Emma Stern Is Dedicated to the Creation of Hot-Girl Mythology


In Emma Stern’s fantasy world, hot girls reign supreme. Since she graduated from Pratt Institute in 2014, the New Jersey-raised artist has been fleshing out her universe of “Lava Babies”—technicolor and otherworldly avatars who metabolize and reimagine classic tropes (pirates, rockstars, and cowgirls). With every series, the artist adds a new chapter to her ever-expanding epic of hot-girl mythology.

“It’s all about building a universe and bringing these artifacts back with me,” says Stern of her approach to world-building. (She considers her social media presence a performance piece and created her first avatars online as a preteen exploring the still-new corners of the Internet.)

“Paintings are one of those artifacts; sculpture, animation, and video are others,” she adds. But writing is the membrane that holds the visuals together. Stern often devises a backstory for each painting, from which she creates a digital sketch with 3D modeling software that becomes a blueprint of sorts.

Emma Stern, Daisy (banger!), 2023. Image courtesy of the artist.

While Stern’s practice is multidisciplinary, painting is her greatest love. “As soon as you put oil paint on canvas, it’s in dialogue with art history and the tradition of portraiture,” she says. In Daisy (banger!), 2023, a young musician in a bikini top and micro skirt perches unabashedly on a drum kit, a drum stick barely obstructing the view up her skirt.

“These are images that tend to exist in the weird underbelly of the Internet,” continues Stern. “That’s the interesting part for me: the way painting recontextualizes these tropes.”

The artist’s work has been described by turns as pornographic and “ironically misogynistic”—but Stern rarely deals with nudity and prefers authenticity to irony. As far as any dialogue with the male gaze goes, she says, the conversation has run its course.

Emma Stern, Penny (vanity), 2023. Image courtesy of the artist. 

“I’m tired of talking about it,” she declares. “Not everything is in response to, in reaction to, or for the benefit of a hypothetical male audience.” Her hyperfeminine avatars are an extension of herself, after all. Nevertheless, Stern is gradually incorporating men into her work. “I have this perfect little universe, but at a certain point I’ll need to introduce some conflict,” she concedes.

On the heels of her solo exhibition, “Penny & The Dimes: Dimes 4Ever World Tour,” at Almine Rech’s London gallery in September, Stern is recharging and preparing for her first solo museum exhibition at Pond Society in Shanghai this spring. This will be the first time her motley cast of avatars will come together—a kaleidoscopic world of mermaids, rock stars, centaurs, elves, pirates, animals, school girls, and femme fatales—under one roof.

For more about CULTURED's 2023 Young Artists, read our features with Adraint Khadafhi BerealGiangiacomo Rossetti, and Oscar yi Hou.