Sexuality, Femininity, and Anime in 3-D: Jessica Lichtenstein’s Work

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.

It evolves.


Jessica Lichtenstein’s show ‘After Glow’ is on view at Gallery Nine5 (24 Spring Street) through December 15.

Afterglow by Jessica Lichtenstein at GALLERY NINE5 Jessica Lichentenstein Afterglow_fall_HR

Our Man In Miami: Peter Anton Tickles Art Basel’s Sweet Spot

The only puzzling thing about seeing a vividly tricked-out thrill ride pop up in Midtown Miami for Art Week was: why it hadn’t happened long before now. As everyone knows, that mad dash folks erroneously refer to as Art Basel (which is actually the name of but one of many massive components) is the cultural equivalent of a thrill ride itself—albeit one where 100,000 of the world’s most illustrious creatives all hop on at the same time. It’s also a bit of a carnival; only in this case, the revelers all seem to have doctorates in decadence. And while there was no way in heaven or hell for even one of those top-shelf party people to catch every happening on their wish list, let alone all fit on a single thrill ride within a 5-day stint, a damn good gaggle did make a point of lining up for the attraction—and they all consequently sweetened the time of their wild lives as a result.

Yes, you guessed it: this heaping helping of praise is for Peter Anton’s Sugar & Gomorrah, the thrill ride which served as a sort of artful carny sideshow to the big tent Art Miami and its adjacent three-ring CONTEXT. If the block-long lines are any indication, Anton’s great creation also proved to be one of Miami Art Week’s most crowd-pleasingly popular sights. 

Presented by Palm Beach’s Arcature Fine Art (who’ve long handled Anton’s action) and green-lit into existence by Art Miami/CONTEXT Director Nick Korniloff, Sugar & Gomorrah combined confections and sex, and made of them one singularly sweetest sensation. Actually, it was a series of sensations, and each lasted but the proverbial blink of an eye. No surprise, considering the one-minute duration of the thrill. According to Anton, the rapid-fire frenzy of it all was highly intentional. “I wanted people to be reminded of how fast we live, and how quickly some of the best things in life can pass us by,” said Anton right after my minute-long ride-along. “I’m sure you saw the underdressed beauties and the oversized treats; but how many things didn’t you see? And how much of what you did see were you able to take in? Seems the faster we go, the less we’re able to appreciate. And there are a lot of things out there worth appreciating.”

By adding the notion of Gomorrah to the equation, Anton’s carnal candyland didn’t just suggest we stop and smell the roses, it seemed to recommend we gobble them up—thorns and all. How else to best sate our most sublime desires before the proverbial bell tolls for everyone? And while the sixty-second sexing of our collective sweet spot did in many aspects seem to evoke instant gratification, the creation is the result of one long hot summer. “We repurposed the classic 1960s Mouse Trap ride,” he explained. “Unfortunately there are only three left in existence, and of those only two are fully operational. So we spent all last summer chasing carnivals from town to town just to get a sense of what would and wouldn’t work. I can’t even tell you how much cotton candy such an endeavor entails.”

Speaking of treats, I wanted to ask Anton how many times he’d had to listen to Leslie Gore’s "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows” and whether that or any other syrupy ditty helped to keep him going while he was creating Sugar & Gomorrah. Sadly, our chat had already exceeded its original one-minute limit. I did thought it prudent to know just how he pulled off placing such a great creation at such a prime location throughout the largest art show on earth. “That was all Nick,” said Anton. ”Arcature and I approached him with the idea and he said go for it. He didn’t ask see a drawing or a blueprint or anything. Nick’s only condition was that we make it absolutely spectacular.”

As anyone lucky enough to thrill through Sugar & Gomorrah will gladly tell you, Anton not only met Korniloff’s condition, he hit Miami Art Week’s sweetest spot, right between the heart and the mind.

Our Man in Miami: Banksy Was Everywhere at Art Basel—Or Was He?

“I tell people Banksy is just like Jesus… do you expect to see Him at Art Basel this year?”

That was New York and Southampton gallerist Stephan Keszler sharing the stock response he gave to the people who asked whether or not Britain’s most infamous street artist was lurking about town for that madness called Art Basel. Keszler wasn’t implying Banksy is as big or even bigger than Jesus, mind you (or even that he’s bigger than The Beatles); it was simply a quick way to point out the rather ridiculousness of the question. As all the world knows, Banksy has largely made his fame by not showing his face—ever. And to think the masked man would suddenly decide to unmask simply because his works were being exhibited, is about as absurd as thinking 12.21.12 will be the day the Christian deity decides to finally pull off the long-promised Second Coming—never mind that the minute either one of them does reveal themselves, it’s all over.

Keszler was the main force behind the extensive collection of Banksy on display at Art Miami and its adjacent CONTEXT art fair throughout the just-wrapped Miami Art Week. Consequently, he got questioned about Banksy a lot. But Keszler’s rapid-fire reply wasn’t only practical, it was also apropos. Most folks inquired about Banksy in the hushed and reverent tones generally reserved for saints or other such eminences. And even if the guerilla muralist hasn’t can’t quite be called a deity, it’s clear the cult of personality he’s cultivated is reaching proportions that are now near Biblical. 

Adding perceived insult to apparent blasphemy, is the fact that the first two murals Keszler acquired came directly from Bethlehem, after a couple Palestinian entrepreneurial types had some trouble unloading the walls they’d torn down. “They were trying to sell the walls on eBay," said Keszler. “Can you believe it? I told them, Banksy or no Banksy, you can’t sell three tons of cinderblock on eBay; that’s not even remotely possible. But I may be able to help get the murals off your hands.” Those murals—“Wet Dog” and “Stop and Search”— were indeed rescued by Keszler, and at considerable effort and expense. That’s likely why he initially put ‘em up for six-figure sale at Art Southampton, summer sister fair of Art Miami.

Done in cahoots with British gallerist Robin Barton and the London-based Bankrobber Gallery, with whom Keszler’s been selling Banksy prints since at least 2009, the showing (and the salvaging) proved to be more than a mite controversial. Both, because the artist’s official Pest Control refused to authenticate the works (though the outfit doesn’t authenticate any of Banksy’s street art), and because some believed the murals should’ve remained on the West Bank (despite each having sat scattered and unseen in a stonemason’s lot for years).

Freed from their price tags (though major museums have reportedly made inquiries about their acquisition) and shown in support of Keszler’s just-launched IPXLU, the murals joined five other rescued street artworks in an exhibition entitled “Banksy: Out of CONTEXT”. As at Southampton, the usual array of crybabies made their usual complaints. Yet for the vast majority of the 60,000 plus who attended Art Miami and CONTEXT throughout Art Week, the onslaught of Banksy proved to be overwhelmingly edifying. “We would never have seen these works anywhere but on the internet,” said one slickly-suited Jane, speaking on behalf of her tricked-out pals. “And I don’t care what people say. We’re standing face-to-face with some of the most iconic images of this decade—images that for all anyone knows may have been lost forever. What the hell is wrong with that?”

I don’t know, but I’m betting if Keszler did get a chance to confront Banksy, he couldn’t have said it better himself.