Artist Jennifer Rubell is best known for her food performances: pieces that sometimes echo Rirkrit Tiravanija’s exercises in relational aesthetics from the nineties. In 2007 Rubell organised a huge banquet that fed 2,000, with a pair of latex gloves for each visitor alongside a hard boiled egg, and in 2009 laid a table with 150 roasted rabbits (evoking Joseph Beuys’s famous performance piece, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Horse).
These days, Rubell’s practise tends towards durable art objects that contain the possibility for audience/artwork interaction instead. Rubells’ latest exhibition in this vein, ‘Not Alone’ at Stephen Friedman Gallery, Mayfair, does not disappoint. Spreading across two adjacent gallery spaces, it incorporates painting, film, and interactive sculpture, alongside the infamous food performance. These works were all created since the birth of the artist’s second child and many draw parallels between the project of making or experiencing art and parenthood. The exhibition is rife with Freudian symbols – eggs, empty beds, horses – and a tension between Rubell’s subjectivity and concerns as a woman and a mother, versus themes and ideas that have predominated art-historically.
In Gallery One, the visitor encounters an interactive sculpture entitled Us. A gallery invigilator is seated on a chair in the centre of an otherwise empty gallery, tenderly cradling a hand-blown clear glass sculpture of a baby that can never be put down; if you approach, they will offer to pass it on to you, and you in turn can pass it on to other visitors. The transparent glass of the sculpture makes it hard to see clearly – a strategy intended to prevent the visitor from approaching the sculpture as an object, but rather than as a means to an experiential end. The visual, physically distanced behaviour we are accustomed to in most gallery settings is here replaced by the tactile, as Rubell invites you to feel Us physically – and crucially, emotionally – through the responsibility of caring for something small and fragile. Alongside the awareness of handling a valuable art object, the weight of the glass infant is similar to that of a real child, and the thick glass warms and retains body heat; the subsequent psychological effect on the participating viewer is somewhat uncanny. Though conceptually simple, as an experience Us is remarkably effective.
Two works fill the rest of the gallery space. Forever is a walled white cube created within the gallery, which contains a bed and a cast bronze sculpture of a baby in a bassinet. You are invited to remove your shoes and enter the dimly lit space, in which you recline and – theoretically – experience a feeling of responsibility for the ‘sleeping’ child. Though Forever is thematically similar to Us in its examination of themes of intimacy and responsibility, as a physical experience it packs less of a punch (though as an excuse for a quiet lie-down on pristine sheets, it is pleasant).
The neighbouring work is rather more successful. Them is a collection of kitsch vintage salt and pepper shakers, presented on a white shelf above a row of pristine white hard-boiled eggs. The visitor is invited to help themselves to an egg, which after peeling can be seasoned using your choice of shakers. Each shaker set makes up a different figurative pairing: a hunter and his prey, a squirrel and a nut, a princess and a frog. In choosing which to sprinkle on their egg, visitors create an enjoyably absurd analogue to the act of procreation, whilst also setting up the potential for new narratives based on where one chooses to replace shakers after use. Unlike Forever’s rather underwhelming invocation of the parental vigil, here the invitation to engage is irresistible – of which fact Rubell, who is best known for her participatory food performances, is well aware.
Across the road in Stephen Friedman’s Gallery Two, there is a shift from maternal narratives to a more explicitly art-historical set of considerations. A series of nude equestrian portraits of the artist by the painter Brandi Twilley is accompanied by a meditative film showing the process of posing and painting in real time, during almost four hours of footage. These works represent a collaboration between the two artists, working together under the fictional male pseudonym of Brad Jones. Through this project, they poke fun at the ‘great white male’ with a series of painterly portraits depicting the visibly female-bodied Rubell on the back of a less-than-majestic horse (in one painting, accompanied by a pile of dung), lampooning the long lineage of portraiture designed to stroke male egos. The accompanying film, Posing, is displayed in a darkened room behind a locked door, into which only one person is allowed at a time. Visitors are given the option to undress before watching, an invitation to a deeper understanding of the process of life modelling through their own exposure. The experience is intimate, as one would expect – the proximity of one’s own body to Rubell’s nude body and Twilley’s clothed form on screen draws one into a rather personal consideration of the power dynamics behind artistic authorship and patronage.
Despite critically engaging with an interesting set of ideas, the series of large collaborative paintings feel rather closer to the pompous form they parody than ‘Brad Jones’ likely intended. Though the work in both galleries is strong, ‘Not Alone’ is most successful – and most enjoyable – at its simplest, through the directness of the networks of personal responsibility, choice, and intimacy Rubell sets up in Us and Them. Rubell doesn’t need a complex network of literal allusions in order to place herself in oppositional contrast to an art world that continues to prioritise the masculine; she already makes that statement through simply doing what she does best – engineering experiences.
In a city currently overwhelmed with big-budget art installations designed to be experienced by the visitor that, despite their bluff, tend towards the insipid (Carsten Höller at the Hayward as one notable example), Rubell’s ruminative meditations are refreshing – and certainly worth encountering ‘in the flesh’, as she intended.
By Isabella Smith
Jennifer Rubell: Not Alone, at Stephen Friedman Gallery – September 4th – October 2nd 2015.