Jessica Lichtenstein, an American, is a prime example of an artist whose work is best summarised with the phrase ‘there is more to it than meets the eye’. Built on the premise of invoking a sense of childhood and youthful nostalgia, Lichtenstein explains her playful and colourful aesthetic: “I view art as a way of escapism and so my way to escape is into these fantasy-esque realms where you can play with dolls, frolic in the clouds, dance among the flowers, live in a world of candy”.
However, as she states, “the closer you look at these pieces, the more you realise these worlds aren’t as innocent as they seem”; naked nymphs comprise the landscape and words such as ‘play’ and ‘bliss’, which feature in her pieces, take on a whole new meaning.
Tackling themes such as female exploitation and empowerment, fetishism and objectification, consumerism and commercialisation, Lichtenstein provides a fresh perspective on many of the key topics prevalent in modern society.
Educated at Yale University, she has gone on to exhibit on numerous occasions, often solo, to great acclaim. Much of her work can now be found in the homes of some of the world’s most important art collectors, stored in private collections across the world from countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Paris, Beverly Hills and Jordan. PETRIe contributor Tara Bell speaks with Lichtenstein to find out more.
Tara Bell: As written in the biography on your website, your work aims to use the female body in order to explore themes of “power, female representation, fetishism and objectification, usually in an ironic and cheerful way.” What was it that ignited your interest in these issues and why are they important to you?
Jessica Lichtenstein: I think I was so influenced by the art that I saw as a young kid and always was drawn to the nudes in landscapes - those gorgeous bathing muses, or the reclining nudes - Botticelli, Raphael; later I discovered Ingres and Fragonard, then Renoir and Degas, etc.
I think the fact that my art always focusses on females as the subject matter is basically my effort to understand not only mine, but society’s preoccupation with the female body. Why are we drawn to nudes? Does it always have to be sexual or pornographic, or can it literally be the humanistic approach of beauty for the sake of beauty, with no other meaning attached? Where is the line between exploiting one’s sexuality versus being empowered by it?
TB: Given the serious nature of the subjects that your work aims to tackle, why did you choose the playful and colourful approach that you have done?
JL: My favourite thing is when a mom and child are walking by the art, and the child stops and points giddily and wants to get a closer look. And as they approach, the mom realises that the art is maybe more for her than her child. Maybe at first people are just lured in by the colourful, candy-esque type worlds, and the sheen of the thick shiny acrylic; on closer inspection, they then notice the hidden sexuality.
Then starts the questions… if they like one of my pieces and don’t know why, I hope they go home and think about what it was about it that they liked. If they don’t like the pieces, I’d ask them to do the same. My goal is not to have everyone love my art - but at least if my pieces elicit or provoke a reaction, I’d like the viewer to challenge themselves to think about why it has done so.
TB: You gained a lot of attention for your work with the anime figurines. Why do you think these pieces are particularly provocative? Was this your intention?
JL: The idea behind that first show I did with anime figures was to take something that already existed, and that was already made for mass consumption, and explore why they are produced, who buys them, and [then] play with the ways in which the viewer gazes at them. So I bought a bunch of these hyper-sexualised dolls and decided to display them on shelves within the white box of the gallery.
But in order to distil some of the provocative nature of the figures, I began to play with them - not as objectification objects, but as Barbie dolls. I dressed them up in Chanel bags, Louboutin shoes, gave them Starbucks coffee cups and iPads; had them walking dogs, getting their nails done, cooking/baking, at work in an office, or even sitting on toilets reading trashy magazines. And it was amazing to watch how women viewers fell in love with these art pieces now that they had actual context and had a sense of humour and satire about them.
Women who would otherwise hate these sex objects instead would giggle and see a greater purpose to their sexuality besides just being objectification objects. They could actually identify with the figures and see them more as everyday women conquering their daily grind, exploiting their sexuality in a powerful way, rather than being exploited by it.
TB: Hyper-sexualised anime motifs feature heavily in your work. Why have you decided to use them? What are you aiming to communicate?
JL: Part of what I like to do is to take something we held sacred as children, or something reminiscent of childhood - playgrounds, mermaids, hot air balloons - and subvert it through sexuality, as a way of showing a loss of innocence, but also as a launching pad to those deeper topics of sexuality, identity, objectification, etc.
A lot of these hyper-sexualised anime girls exude that oxymoron - of being innocent yet sexual, of parading their sexuality while simultaneously provoking.
TB: Your later work focusses on the relationship between sex and nature. In your ‘Word Sculptures’, you include words such as “Bloom” and “Lush”, as well as “Dirty” and “Wet”. What made you choose these words in particular?
JL: I like the words with double meanings, where there is an innocent interpretation to the word and a subtler more sexual connotation as well. It fits with my whole vibe of [when] far away, the piece seems innocuous, and on closer inspection you begin to notice the naughtiness. Any of these words are innocent enough, but taken with the visual graphic, you can’t help but think of some other meanings as well.
TB: Your most recent series, ‘Seasons’, depicts natural landscapes with a twist, using the naked female form to represent leaves and flowers. Why have you done this?
JL: The ‘Seasons’ pieces are thematically the same as my other pieces but a bit more subtle and a bit more vulnerable. The idea being that we are all these delicate flowers striving to bloom, going through our seasons, reaching for the sun, sometimes falling from the tree, sometimes jumping, sometimes clinging to the tree for support. It’s a beautiful image. And at this point, every time I look at a tree, I now see thousands of little nymphets running along the branches.
TB: What are your plans for your art in the future?
JL: I’m currently working on a new project that’s aesthetically a bit of a departure. It involves resin, 3D-printing, casting, moulding [and] mechanics. Thematically it will be reminiscent of my previous works, but execution-wise, it’ll be drastically different, and I’m super excited to show them in the next year.
Words: Tara Bell
All images courtesy of Jessica Lichtenstein