Whitehot Magazine

Jessica Lichtenstein's solo show “Delicious Torment” deciphers the paradox of love

Concrete heart-shaped sculptures encrusted with engraved lockets by Jessica Lichtenstein, image courtesy of the artist, 2023.

Jessica Lichtenstein: Delicious Torment

Winston Wächter

Through  March 11 2023

By COCO DOLLE, January 2023 

In her solo exhibition, Delicious Torment, artist and sculptor Jessica Lichtenstein plays with the nature of love and human emotions. Large heart-shaped sculptures made of plaster hang on the gallery walls at eye level, inviting the viewer for an embrace to come closer. Jessica’s sculptures are solid and feel generous like heart-shaped gifts. They come in bold colors, hot pinks, royal blue, deep purple, turquoise blue, charcoal black, slate gray or marbled whites. From a distance they, radiate a sentiment of perfection and purity. Upon closer look, multiple fractures and cracks cross  over the surface. Each fissure is made with intention  by the artist and encrusted with dozens of engraved lockets collected over the years. 

Lockets are symbolic objects of affection and are frequently given as gifts to cherish. They often contain aspirational words like “forever”, “hope” or “love”. In Jessica’s sculptures,though, they are engraved with oxymorons and quotes related to matters of sex, romance or movies such as in “Dream”, “You’re the one”, “You’re actually a nympho”, “Those things only happen in movies'', “It tastes a little strange”, “Masochist”, or “In my dreams, I wasn’t alone”. Within these cracks and lockets the artist elegantly drives at our human imperfections, anxieties, hopes, desires and dreams. Like an open heart, the exhibition, Delicious Torment, accentuates the paradoxes of human emotions and vulnerabilities. It pertains to our existential nature and to how we experience life. 

Jessica Lichtenstein with her sculptures from her solo exhibition 'Delicious Torment", image courtesy of the artist, 2023.

Coco Dolle: Your exhibition, Delicious Torment, presents concrete heart sculptures inserted with thousands of lockets engraved with hundreds of quotes. There are many layers to this exhibition. Tell us about your process and how long did it take you to complete this project? How many years have you collected the necessary quotes?

Jessica Lichtenstein: Since my early childhood, I have had a vast repertoire of poems in my head. At about 12 years old, I started memorizing poetry. It wasn’t an intentional process at first, though by reading multiple times over the same poem and analyzing it, I’d end up memorizing it. Later on, my natural process became a more conscious and intentional one. By the time I was in high school, I had memorized the Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot [a hundred and thirty lines long poem]. Poems became my friends. I’d walk along a beach and see a branch and immediately associate it with a poem by T.S. Elliot I had memorized. “A twisted branch upon the beach eaten smooth, and polished as if the world gave up the secret of its skeleton”. Or I’d hear a fly and think in my head “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” by Emily Dickinson. Snippets of poetry would often pop up in my brain, accompanying my day and allowing me to view things differently, like looking at a sunset differently or perceiving death differently, and therefore seeing life with enhanced meanings. 

CD: Would you say you are some sort of a collector of human emotions?

JL: I started collecting phrases and thoughts from memorizing poetry and devouring novels. In doing so, I would say that I became a collector of human emotions. I believe art helps you understand the world around you. Whether it’s lyrics or music, or a brushstroke in the sky, or even a character study in a novel that holds a mirror up to nature. We are just humans grappling with describing our existence on this planet. I use art as a way to share and communicate that experience and questioning. At first, I started choosing quotes from my poetry repertoire but then it quickly evolved into gathering words from snippets of newspapers, comic books, romantic novels, things from my diary and pornography. We are not one dimensional creatures, we are oxymorons, we are paradoxes. We are happy one day, sad the next, contemplative yet thoughtless, joyous yet sorrowful. We can bounce from one thought to another as quickly as a snap of the finger and convince ourselves it's the only thought worth thinking. Yet, meanwhile in days surrounded by words, news, headphones, conversations we are bombarded with thousands of thoughts. Not to mention the white noise of thoughts in our own brains even surrounded by silence. I think I wanted to show how normal this all is. How beautiful, complex we are, even with all of our happy and awful thoughts. 

Sculpture "Beside you" (detail), Jessica Lichtenstein, 2023.

CD: What is your relationship with Love? Why is it so important in your work? Are you perhaps looking for the divine in human forms?  

JL: I think Love is just one emotion I play with, along with Happiness, Sadness, Longing, Sorrow, Depression, Anxiety, Elation. I use the form of the heart not only as a symbol of the heart in our bodies and of the emotion of love, but also as the talisman of a heart-shaped locket that seems so clichéd. I wanted to challenge the viewer to look at this iconic cliché with different eyes. Instead of lockets that are positive reminders of  “love” “hope” “breathe” or “joy”, things that are aspirational by nature, I wanted my lockets to hold words that would lay bare everything you were thinking, with complete honesty. Everything that not only you are thinking, but that the world thinks of you, or that you think the world thinks of you. 

If I could take that heart and not just say happy things, but say things that are confrontational and arresting but are nonetheless there, hidden in one's mind, or hidden in society and still have the viewer see it as beautiful, or even make the viewer feel slightly better as though they are reading things from shared experiences, then that heart becomes even more beautiful despite being filled with some truths and uglinesses and crazinesses. It becomes more human. 

CD: Your exhibition title makes reference to American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was also the leader of the transcendental movement. A progressive movement drawn to nature that promoted the simplicity of life. The transcendentalists also stood for women’s rights and were known for critiquing the industrial revolution in the mid-nineteenth century. Are you aligning yourself with this philosophy of life?

JL: Along with the quotes I memorized as a kid, I learned from Emerson and Thoreau. Quotes like: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” or “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his.” I like this last quote a lot because it is a good reminder that speaks to both post the industrial revolution and to today’s social media generation in between web 2.0 and web 3.0. In an age where our phones are not far from our hands and iPads and computers are in every room, I’m glad for instagram and glad for what it has done for the art world. For instance, it has allowed artists to be more independent. But in a lot of other ways it is so abhorrent to me. I’d like to say that I only read paper books and listen to records by candlelight. But I'd be lying. I use all these things that new technology affords us. I just complain about it. But at least I did “go to the woods to live deliberately.” We moved to Jackson Hole, Wyoming three years ago. I invite you to join me and sit by the fire and “suck out all the marrow of life” while watching Netflix and listening to podcasts …  WM


Coco Dolle

Coco Dolle is a French-American artist, writer, and independent curator based in New York since the late 90s. Former dancer and fashion muse for acclaimed artists including Alex Katz, her performances appeared in Vogue and The NY Times. Over the past decade, she has organized numerous exhibitions acclaimed in high-end publications including Forbes, ArtNet, VICE, and W Magazine. She is a contributing writer for L’Officiel Art and Whitehot Magazine. As an artist, her work focuses on body politics and feminist issues as seen at the Oregon Contemporary (OR) and Mary Ryan Gallery (NYC).


Follow her on instagram.

view all articles from this author