Purple Magazine
— Purple #39 The New York issue

Emma Stern






OLIVIER ZAHM — We’re doing this issue about New York. Because it’s not that New York is back — New York has always been a center for the art world and for creativity — but during Covid, a lot of people ran away, and now the city’s super expensive. And you live and work in Bushwick, Brooklyn. What’s Bushwick like?

EMMA STERN — Bushwick is a special place, although when I’m not working, I spend most of my time in Manhattan. I always say that New York City is the love of my life, although I also refer to it as an abusive relationship because I’ll get exhausted and worn down by the grind, and I’ll be like: “Okay, you know what? I’m done. You treat me so bad, I’m done this time. I mean it, I’m leaving. You’ll never see me again.” And then, I go away somewhere, and two weeks later, I’m like: “Hey. Miss you. I’ve been thinking about you. Should I come back? I’ll come back if you want me to.” And this happens over and over and over again. I really can’t leave.

OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you explain this new subversive energy?

EMMA STERN — It’s interesting. I was speaking with Alex Tsebelis, from No Agency, who connected us, and he referred to this new energy as “post-nightlife.” I think everyone is bored with going to nightclubs and getting trashed. This new energy is creative, intellectual. Less raving, more drinking martinis in a dimly lit bar and talking, sharing ideas.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And you attended art school in New York?

EMMA STERN — I did. I went to Pratt Institute, not too far from here. I always wanted to become an artist. I was kind of a bad kid, and I got away with a lot because all the grown-ups just rolled their eyes and said: “It’s fine — she’s just going to be an artist.” [Laughs] So no, there was never any doubt. I was reading an article about artificial intelligence, and there’s this concept of a “prime directive,” which is the task that gets programmed and must be accomplished by any means necessary. I think making art is my prime directive. In a way, I was very lucky. I never really wanted to do anything else, other than write, which I’m figuring out how to integrate into my art now.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And is New York a major source of inspiration for you? Or is it more the Internet, the digital world?

EMMA STERN — It’s really both.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because there’s an Americana feel to some of your work.

EMMA STERN — Yes, that is definitely in there. Lately I’ve been interested in writing and integrating a narrative arc into my paintings and creating backstories for the characters I paint. When I do exhibitions, and the paintings are all shown together, the paintings can function as illustrations for a story. And all those stories are about New York City on some level. For example, the show I did with Half Gallery last March was called “Booty!” — it was all about pirates. The inspiration for that was when I learned that there used to be tons of pirates all up the coast of New York City.

OLIVIER ZAHM — They were hiding there?

EMMA STERN — I suppose they were raping and pillaging, as pirates do, up and down the East Coast, bringing things back and forth and stealing. And then I started thinking: “Well, the coast of New York is flooding. It’ll be sinking under water in the next 100 years.” I got interested in this idea of a return to piracy. Like, what’s the city going to look like when it’s submerged in water? And are we going to have a resurgence of piracy? And then, of course, because it’s me, they’re all sexy pirate babes. But to answer your question, all of these stories, even the more fantasy-based ones, are really love letters to New York.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think the mythology of New York is inspiring for an artist?

EMMA STERN — I think New York has a mythology. You don’t even have to have ever been here to understand the mythology of New York. You could make art about New York City without ever having been here — the concept of what it stands for is more important than the reality of what it actually is.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, are you looking to create new mythologies?

EMMA STERN — I think so. Everything is referential at this point, and I’d rather be referential than redundant. [Laughs] But when you create new mythologies, you are just reworking and combining. And that is what I’m attempting to do.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And your color palette is fantastic.

EMMA STERN — It’s a very unnatural palette.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Unnatural. Light pink, yellow, and a sort of gray-blue…

EMMA STERN — Yes, it changes over time. The pirate show had a lot of sunset colors, but lately I am working with cooler hues, blues and purples. But it’s always in the same color family. I think it comes from wanting to create a universe that is recognizable as my own. When I first started using 3D software and building models to paint from, I really wanted to differentiate them — they were not humans, and this was not happening on planet Earth… It’s not skin, they don’t have any bones, there’s no blood, they are not made of flesh.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you start with a digital structure.

EMMA STERN — Yes, I build the avatars in 3D software and then create environments around them. They all have names and personalities, some of them recurring.

OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s an interesting process.

EMMA STERN — Well, my background and the way I learned to paint were very traditional, academic. I was always painting from a live model. I also worked as a live model at Cooper Union, so I was on both sides of it. That’s how I became interested in this idea of the muse, and that relationship between the muse and the artist. And what does that mean as a female painter in the 21st century? I started building my own muses and realized I was creating avatars. When you make an avatar, it is inevitably a self-portrait; even if it is not literally meant to resemble you, it contains facets of you, as the creator. So, the work I make is ultimately an extended self-portraiture project.

OLIVIER ZAHM — So, what’s the next step? Are you moving toward sculpture? You made one in Marfa.

EMMA STERN — Yeah, I made an eight-foot, 3D-printed mermaid for Marfa — her name was Pearl. I had made other smaller sculptures in the past, but I definitely think of Pearl as my first fully realized sculpture because the scale is important — I’m portraying these sexy women, and if they’re small, they read as dolls. I don’t want them to be cute — I want them to be imposing. Even in my paintings, I like the figures to be close to life-size, never too precious.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Why are you more and more interested in sculpture?

EMMA STERN — In a way, sculpture makes more sense than painting the avatars because when I’m creat- ing them, they’re 3D, and then they get “flattened” into 2D when they’re turned into a painting. But to turn them into a sculpture, I get to skip that step of translating from three to two dimensions. I also think 3D-printing them makes a lot of sense as a medium. This super shiny, high gloss appears in my paintings, too.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yeah, I don’t know if it’s marble or plastic or paper.

EMMA STERN — Exactly, and I love this feeling that it might melt if you look too hard at it. It’s almost like it’s made of candy.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, you question the materiality: “What is this?”

EMMA STERN — Someone told me that they were looking at the photos from the mermaid sculpture at Marfa, and they thought it was a 3D render. And it kind of is! I love that ambiguity. Sometimes people come to my studio, and they’re shocked when they get here because they didn’t realize it was all paintings. They thought it was all prints of digital art. And I lean into that, especially because I realize most people who ever see my art will see it as a thumbnail on a phone screen. I think the ambiguity and the confusion are a feature, not a bug.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And there’s an overt sexiness to your subjects. Is that very New York, too — this fearless approach to sex?

EMMA STERN — It could be. I mean, it certainly is carrying on a tradition.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you remember when Jeff Koons was doing his glass sculptures with the Italian porn star Ilona Staller, known as La Cicciolina?

EMMA STERN — Jeff Koons is, of course, a huge influence on me. And Lisa Yuskavage.

OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you met her?

EMMA STERN — I’ve gone to five of her talks. I think she thinks I’m stalking her. [Laughs] I have so much admiration for her. But she’s much more of a painterly painter than I am. I’m more trying to figure out, “How do I make this look less like a painting?” The thing I learned from looking at her work is the color — she’s also do- ing a very stylized, almost monochromatic palette with high contrast. What she does with green… I don’t know anyone else who can do that. I don’t even try with green — it scares me.

OLIVIER ZAHM — New York maintains a love for painting.

EMMA STERN — Yes, I feel everyone’s been eulogizing the death of painting every four years for the last 100 years. But as long as people still need to decorate their houses… Good luck doing that with an NFT. Painting doesn’t die — it evolves, it adapts. The tools we have to make paintings now force us to constantly update how we define what a painting is. I was speaking with an old- er artist who came to my show in Paris. He said, “You know, I’m sorry, but this just isn’t a paint- ing to me because you use so much technology.” And I thought that was so silly! I think it’s a misnomer that there’s some kind of nobility in not using technology in art-making. In fact, I think it is an artist’s duty to use every tool available.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And maybe painting is a new form of photography. Maybe painting gives the painter a better understanding or representation of reality today, including psychological reality, than photography does.

EMMA STERN — I completely agree. I think about how when the camera first became accessible and widespread, that’s when we got Impressionism in painting. All of a sudden, painting wasn’t just documentation, and that opened up all kinds of creative decision-making. The more decision-making, the further something veers from reality and the less purely representational it is.

OLIVIER ZAHM — And the more photography we have, the more painting we need to understand the world.

EMMA STERN — I love that — how poetic.

OLIVIER ZAHM — But at the end of the day, you are your own muse.

EMMA STERN — Yes, all my self-portraits. I mean, I spend at least as much time as my virtual self as I do as my real self. I play a character on social media — we all do, to an extent. Our virtual personhood is becoming more and more legitimized. And your virtual self, or selves, can be whoever you want, however you’re feeling at any given moment. That’s where the fantasy comes into it, for me, because it’s not just: “Oh, do I want to be taller, or my ass to be bigger?” It’s more like: “Do I want to be a centaur? Do I want to have horns or a tail? Do I want to be a pirate?”


[Table of contents]

Purple #39 The New York issue

Subscribe to our newsletter