To anticipate Nutcrackers, Jennifer Rubell’s freakily constructed mannequin brothel of an exhibition, you might expect to go into an early phase of ribald amusement or something more outright disturbing and creepy. Entering a big industrial space with 18 girly mannequins, each one nubile, life-sized, and equipped with special features for cracking Texas pecans, is super funny and kind of scary. Then five minutes later, you’re bored.
Getting to touch artwork is always a rarity, but the digital age has brought interactivity into the gallery and onto the physical object. Rubell’s installation invites us to grab a handful of pecans from a giant tub installed among the mannequins, then wander about the room cracking nuts between the thighs of each pretty nutcracker – an awkward idea that’s still interesting and a little naughty. Each nutcracker has a name: Lysa, Tera, Robin, Gail, Black Shanice, etc., and lays fetchingly on her (its?) side upon a pedestal.
Feeling silly, I went to the one furthest from the entrance, placed a nut in the little indentation on its (her?) lower inner thigh, and gingerly pulled the upper leg down. The thing felt loose, like it was going to break any second, and the teeth-like appliance attached to the higher leg came nowhere close to the nestled nut. Did Not Work. Feeling slightly rejected, I moved on to the next.
I didn’t get her name, I just cracked the nut and ate it. This time a single strange pulling of the leg worked and I had my reward. I moved to another one. A single strange pulling of the leg worked again and I realized that all 18 required the same repetitive gesture and that was that. There was absolutely no reason to keep going after the first edible pecan.
My only remaining interest was to choose which girl I wanted. Searching for a girl that pleased me made me feel a little like Harvey Keitel in Taxi Driver and that is one disgusting way to feel. But none of them pleased me – they were all blondes or redheads with large breasts (except for dark-skinned Black Shanice). Was there no pale-skinned neurotic one with long black hair and small breasts? While coming up empty in a quest for my mannequin mirror image, I realized that, with the exception of Black Shanice, none of the nutcrackers had really dark hair. Was this show not intended to be about sexualized female stereotypes? Did I somehow get that wrong with the whole nude lady nutcracking thigh thing? I am neither Asian nor Latina, but I’m pretty sure those ladies put up with a whole lot of bullshit in the sexual stereotyping arena. Hell, even I have to put up with it as that rarest of ethnicities, the brunette white girl.
But there’s supposed to be another point to the show I missed as well: “the too-powerful, nut-busting uberwoman,” inspired by Hilary Clinton. I saw no connection between that idea and this installation. Maybe if the actual nutcracking parts had been incorporated differently on each mannequin or if other simple kitchen gadgets had been added to the mix, I might have gotten some sort of power vibe and would not have become so bored so quickly.
Jennifer Rubell: Nutcrackers runs through December 4th at the Dallas Contemporary.
Betsy Lewis is a Dallas writer who shares her first name with myriad cows, umpteen mules, and the Cybill Shepherd character in Taxi Driver.