Given that we’ve already talked about porn today, it’s nothing too adventurous that we next turn to Jessica Lichtenstein and her nudes: reappropriated hyper sexualized Japanese anime figures and excessively buoyant 3D-software-born archetypically feminine bodies placed in new environs, aggression and subjection sent packing. First glance reveals the aforementioned nudes frolicking and at play, but a second gander might make the viewer aware of a male-absence. This is a healthily feminine world that Lichtenstein has created – only celebration and empowerment allowed.
So how did Lichtenstein get started, stealing pornographic anime figures from various XXX sites, keeping the bodies unclothed, but changing their message entirely?
“I would cut out and appropriate these women from pornographic comic books,” said Jessica. “I wondered if you stick it in a different context or a landscape, does your idea of pornography change? Growing up, my greatest influences were found when walking around the Louvre. I would stop by the nude bathers, the nymphs, the nude in landscapes, so it hearkens back to the Renaissance, but there’s a modern edge to it.”
The nudes Lichtenstein speaks of seeing were depictions of the feminine ideal at the time – the forms shown in her work are again that feminine ideal, but they’re that sort of unattainable, hyper sexualized shape that’s become so omnipresent in our current society. One only needs to look to Barbie dolls, male-focused advertising, or Amanda Lepore for proof.
The bodies Lichtenstein uses may be hyper sexualized, but in a way that’s not intimidating to females.
“I don’t look at that and say ‘god, I wish I was that,” said Lichtenstein. “They don’t make you feel bad about yourself. There’s something sort of empowering in their sexuality that translates to the viewer, no matter how they feel about themselves. People walk away from these with a little more strut in their step.”
In her newer work, Lichtenstein left the pre-fab women behind, setting out to make one ideal form, generated in the Maya 3-D program with built-in joints, making repositioning easier. Pointing to one of the Four Seasons pieces, Lichtenstein fills me in: “This is the same girl, multiplied by like 3,000.”
“I became obsessed with this idea that we’re all sort of petals on trees, we’re these flowers, these blossoms that are going through our cycles, our seasons – sometimes by ourselves, sometimes in groups. We’re petals in the sun trying to grow. All the emotions that go into being a female, in sexuality but also just as a person, our mood changes… these became the idea of Four Seasons,” said Lichtenstein.
The circular shapes she has chosen to house her acrylic-topped works are ultimately feminine: “[They’re] earthy, they remind me of pregnancy.” And every facet – every leaf, even in the smallest detail, is one of Lichtenstein’s women.
In some of her works, Lichtenstein’s women are frolicking on dildo-like boats, or perhaps floating on nipple-shaped hot air balloons.
“Because why not?” the artist asked, smiling. “When I’m in a bad place or a dark mood, apparently I throw up rainbows, because I don’t want to stay in that dark mood. My depth and despair breeds happy, shiny stuff.”
Of her cultural references, Lichtenstein says she’s not bound to this Japanese or American ideal. “In a couple years I’ll probably be taking my influences from other cultures.” By then, she’ll probably have graduated to printing her figures in 3-D. “Maybe a year and a half down the road…”
Whole worlds exist within Lichtenstein’s pieces now. So many details and so many stories exist within the frame – it wouldn’t be a stretch to stare for hours and discover more and more. While it is time-intensive, technology helps; pointing to a hammock, Lichtenstein says “that exists in 3-D, so I can turn it, twist it, move it however I want. Here it’s dead on, here’s it’s twisted to the right.”
We spoke about the themes and messages in her work:
I love the idea of women as nature, as the ultimate mother. It makes sense in your work.
You get it! When you put women in the “wild”, in their “natural habitat”, the fetishism takes off. So I’ll put antlers and tails and ears on all the girls, a little bit of fetishism, it’s actually my take on the nude bathers. Cézanne has his, Picasso had his… these are mine.
…All done by men. I feel like as women we’re in the process of reclaiming the feminine ideal for ourselves. It’s the figures – you’ve kind of taken them back. What prompted you to even start down that road?
I was always fascinated with nudes. Not in a lesbian way, not in a perverted way. It was always just beautiful to me. A lot of times we get caught up in how objectified we are as women, and we become almost defensive. So when we see nude women and nude depictions … we have a tendency to get defensive and we intellectualize it a little too much. I like to get back to the sense of how beautiful and empowering and how lovely it is. It’s not a slight against us – it’s not something that takes us away from being still brilliant, equal to men. We can just exist out there; we don’t have to hide it as much.
I really like the empowering, beautification, not in an objectifying way but in a celebratory way. The people who come in and say, “Oh my god, guys would love his, how do you sell to women?” Those are the people who don’t get it, but those are the people I’m trying to talk to and convert, a little bit. I try to spoon feed them sexuality. Deep down I think they like it, but they don’t want to admit it, or they don’t want to be that person. So if you take a girl, and instead of having those flesh tones you give it to them in a more monotone way with a beautiful scene – up close you can tell but not from afar – you get women saying “I won’t have that, but I could maybe do this in my living room.” You can see their minds change, maybe they don’t even realize why they have these set interpretations. So when you ask why they object, sometimes they can’t even answer the question. I like dancing with that line.
The Japanese figures are a little more obvious and something we might oppose. But when you go to the more anonymous figure that you made in 3D…
Even though they say they don’t like it, maybe they say, “Ok, I like the scene”. They try to find a way to justify why they like the nudes. But the right person who comes from my cloth, they see these and think “this is my fantasy land, this makes me smile, and this is a world I want to be in. I want to hang out with these girls; I want to play with them. It makes me happy.” But I like talking to the people who need a little convincing. That’s what makes this art; it’s a conversation, not just happy pretty things on walls.
I feel very Woman Power right now. It’s not aggressively that. But the energy is good in here.
A lot of people try to categorize this as sexual or erotic. My intention is more playful jubilation. One of my favorite things is when my art is in a window, you have kids like “mommy mommy mommy!” who are just drawn to it. And you have mom on her iPhone holding her kid and her dog, and she puts her phone down, and sees, and realizes it’s more for her than for her child. It’s the idea of a childlike innocence coming out in adults. This is Disneyland for adults. Everything you held sacred as a child – bright colors, shiny, balloons, and trees – PLAY… It’s everything you had as a child but a little bit twisted with the sexuality, which a little bit shows that loss of innocence. Some people put cartoony things but will put a slash through the throat, or distorted figures, but I like to show loss of innocence in a sexual way. And you don’t have to lose that innocence. It doesn’t die.