The first recorded avatar in Western culture, Galatea, as Pygmalion’s creation came to be known, is a woman more ‘perfect’ than nature could ever produce. Only art could have spawned her, with a little help from the goddess of love, Aphrodite. She is not only beautiful but incapable of immoral action. Created by a man who loathed womankind for her ‘lasciviousness’, her nature is presumed to be prenaturally sweet, submissive, pliant. She is the object of his desire and exists purely to satisfy him. Yet as George Bernard Shaw observed at the end of his 1916 play, Galatea never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable. Rolling forward to the present, through countless iterations in between, the trope of the animated female statue has become the industry standard of the female avatar. Now, she has special powers, she is physically and mentally strong, she is morally invincible, but she looks like she came out of a slot machine, with the impossibly waspish waist, perfect pneumatic breasts, long legs, excellent hair and limited emotional range that has become dangerously and confusingly synonymous with an idea of female empowerment in the digital realm. This physical prototype is repeated in pornographic avatars and animated female Disney characters alike – it has become the standard for ‘woman’ in all animation.
Made during the lockdown in London in the early part of 2021, Emma Stern’s paintings for this exhibition are infused with an eerie, erotic ennui. Her avatars, which she creates using specialised 3D software and realises in oil on canvas, are trapped indoors, their Lara Croft-esque ‘battle-ready’ attire designed, true to form, solely to titillate, and appearing even less fit for purpose here. Her fantastical, winged, hooved or perky-eared creatures are daydreaming, bored, hoovering, mopping floors, painting walls, getting their thrills from a reverberating washing machine, immobilised with a broken ankle, or lost in reverie the morning after the night before, all in the gloomy half-light of cyberspace.
The conquering goddesses are back in the kitchen, so to speak, albeit a virtual one. Their blank eyes stare vacantly into space. Their titular girl-next-door names – Sydney, Nina, Jess, Kinley – stand in perverse contradiction to the artist’s own description of her characters as empty vessels, vacant containers onto which we are invited to project. In truth it seems Stern herself is both artist and muse, her thoroughly post-modern and unabashed play with self-objectification born in part from the personal liberation of discovering a virtual identity through MySpace as a misfit adolescent growing up in a small town. The vague and disturbing no-man’s land between our online identities and our real selves is the space she prefers to inhabit.
The technical skill with which Stern brings her characters to life owes much to her classical training – she has cited studying Italian Renaissance painting as her starting point for her grounding in draughtsmanship and chiaroscuro – but it is the Surrealists that hold most fascination for her – Max Ernst, Man Ray and Salvador Dalí – and the objectified, context-less beautiful female figures who recur in their work as creatures made to exist only in painted form. Non-physical, even subsconscious space is her territory, her paintings like ‘postcards from cyberspace’ (Malachosky), charged with an intense, knowing eroticism, a little magic and a healthy sense of outrage at the casual schoolboy misogyny of coders.
Emma Stern (b. 1992) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a BFA from Pratt Institute’s School of Painting.
Recent solo shows include ‘Home Bodies’, Carl Kostyál, Stockholm (2021), ‘Boy, It Feels Good To Be A Cowgirl’, Almine Rech, Paris (2021), ‘Revenge Body’, Carl Kostyál, London, ‘‘Slow Fade’, The Newsstand Project, Los Angeles (2020); ‘Works’, Jorge Andrew Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (2017); ‘Tabs’, Stream Gallery, Brooklyn, NY (2015). Stern has an upcoming solo show at Carl Kostyál, Stockholm in November 2021.
Recent group shows include ‘Stockholm Sessions’, Carl Kostyál, Stockholm (2021); ‘Resting Point of Accommodation’, Almine Rech, Brussels (2021); ‘The Artist is Online’, Konig Gallery, Berlin (2021); ‘Friend Zone’, Half Gallery, New York (2021); ‘06’, PM/AM, London (2020); ‘Escapism’, Meredith Rosen Gallery, New York (2020) and ‘American Woman’, Allouche Benias Gallery, Athens, Greece (2020).