Jessica Lichtenstein was never obsessed with the world of Japanese animation or its X-rated hentai subgenre, but something attracted her to the small, titillating figurines of its female characters and they have since become central to her body of work. That series has since expanded into a series of wall sculptures, which will be among the work on display in Peep Show, her latest exhibition opening at Vered Gallery in East Hampton on Saturday, May 25.
What began as a playful exploration of the figurines themselves—putting them in thought-provoking scenes and miniature dioramas, in various states of undress—has evolved and grown in step with her blossoming career and reputation as one of New York’s hottest young artists. In a few short years, Lichtenstein has had two solo shows in Manhattan and exhibited at the county’s most prominent contemporary art fairs. Her work has been featured in publications around the world, including a prominent collector’s profile in Architectural Digest, and she’s represented in private collections in London, Madrid, Paris, Nice, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and across the United States.
The artist’s earlier work recontextualizes the sexy manga heroines and not-so-innocent ingenues with props and set pieces, such as Chanel and Dior shopping bags, Louboutin heels and recognizable but appropriately small pieces of fine art. One such sculpture comprises an anime nymph with large breasts exposed, kneeling in front of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting “Christina’s World.” Her pose is strikingly similar to that of Christina and, with top pulled down below her voluptuous breasts, the semi-clad figure suggests how Wyeth’s subject might appear if seen from the front. Another small work takes a decidedly darker, yet still somehow lively, turn as Lichtenstein chains her hands and feet to the wall, but most of her women feel flirty and fun as they serve food, pop out of ice cream cones, discipline toy soldiers or engage in Sapphic fun with their resin and PVC counterparts.
While charming and seductive to the eye, Lichtenstein’s vision goes much deeper. The hyper-sexualized female forms are the stuff of erotic fantasy, yet their girlish, innocent faces appear uncomfortably young and pure for the feelings they evoke. The artists forces her viewer to look at sexuality and the associated contradictions, whether they be lust, revulsion, joy, shame or even vicarious pleasure and desire for empowerment and liberation. She directly examines the longstanding argument between feminism and pornography, and when, if ever, the two intersect.
“I don’t even know how I feel about it,” Lichtenstein says, noting that examining such notions is part of her process. The artist enjoys pushing buttons and testing the boundaries of her viewers and collectors, but she also sees the figures as symbols of lost innocence, fetish objects and idealized forms. “I just like depictions of women, not in a sexual way, in a beautiful way,” she says. “It’s mostly women who are drawn to the work. They have the ability to imagine themselves in that world and as that girl.”
At 33 years old, Lichtenstein has already accomplished much. She earned a degree at Yale University and went on to become a lawyer in New York before leaving it all to pursue her career as an artist. As an attorney, Lichtenstein worked so many hours and endured such stress that her body finally just gave out. She awoke one day with four or five bulging discs, weakness in her arms and a host of pain and maladies. Dark days followed, but that difficult time proved to be the darkness before the dawn for Lichtenstein. “It finally gave me the balls to do what I want to do in life,” she says, “But it was a really f__ing bad year.”
Injured and suffering, Lichtenstein spent most of her time at home and eventually began creating the work that put her name on the lips of New York’s art world elite. She sold out her first show within a month and left law behind for good. “I’m the happiest person in the world,” Lichtenstein says, looking back at her last five meteoric years.
Lichtenstein’s upcoming solo show at Vered Gallery marks the next step in her evolution as an internationally acclaimed artist. The sexually charged hentai characters remain an essential component of the work, but Lichtenstein now places them in fantastical, digitally-created worlds, rife with frolicking girls—all of them enjoying their surreal, beautiful and phallic surroundings.
Called “word sculptures,” each of these new works features Lichtenstein’s scenes—much like the nude bathers depicted by Renoir, Cezanne or Picasso—integrated into thick, clear acrylic letters that together spell evocative words, such as “WILD,” “DIRTY,” “YUMMY,” “BLOOM” or “WAR,” to name a few.
Layering these images behind a dense buffer of acrylic, the pieces take a critical distance from their own content and beg the viewer to do the same. Through this thick lens, the viewer is again asked to engage with and question whether these women are depicted solely to satisfy an insatiable male-dominated gaze, or if such a theory is too narrow, neglecting to address the complex nature of women and their desire to enjoy their sexuality, enjoy their bodies and their desire to be desirable.
Lichtenstein provokes the viewer to confront their own reactions to these intensely sexual images—whether it be feelings of shock, disgust, power, vulnerability or longing—and decide what they are comfortable with, and why.
Peep Show, Lichtenstein‘s first solo exhibition in the Hamptons, opens Memorial Day weekend, with a reception on Saturday, May 25 from 9–11 p.m., and will run through Monday, June 17. Vered Gallery is located at 68 Park Place in East Hampton. Call 631-324-3303 or visit veredart.com for more information.
Ron Agam will also be exhibiting his work at Vered Gallery over the weekend. BREAKOUT is this artist’s first solo show in the Hamptons. Agam‘s urge to harness time, once left to science, has been breached in his lenticular art.