Jennifer Rubell Invites You to Throw a Pie in Her Face (Then Call Her on the Phone)

Osman Can Yerebakan

The artist, known for her foodie creations, investigates permission and vulnerability by prompting some unusually personal audience interactions.

Jennifer Rubell is already known for engaging with her audiences more actively than most, but her new show takes that interaction up a notch, examining personal boundaries in alternately visceral and more distanced ways. In Consent, she’ll invite viewers to throw cream pies in her face, then to add insult to injury by calling her personal phone number for a follow-up chat.

The New Yorker, know for her elaborate food-themed happenings, will stand on a pedestal to make herself an easier target for flan-flinging participants half an hour before the gallery closes each day. And in entries from her series Partition Paintings, her digits will be inscribed on bathroom stall dividers in lipstick-like red paint. It’s a suggestive juxtaposition.

The show also marks firsts both for Rubell and Meredith Rosen Gallery—it's the New York space's inaugural project.

GARAGE met Rubell, grasping a bucket of frosting, at the gallery a few days before the opening.

Jennifer Rubell. Photo: Courtesy of Jason Schmidt

GARAGE: How did the current climate around sexual misconduct affect your approach to the definition of consent?
Jennifer Rubell: “Consent” is obviously a very loaded word at the moment. I think people want it to mean one thing—true or false, yes or no—but in my experience, consent is non-binary. In the paintings, I give out my phone number. That implies consent for the viewer to call me. But does that mean I’m giving them consent to say whatever they want? Or that I'll be okay with whatever they say? In Slapstick, I’m giving consent for the viewer to throw a pie at me. But before they do it, they fill out a very explicit form that spells out exactly what they can and cannot do: only one pie, right into my face, no selfies, no touching me, no talking to me. Even so, there's a lot of wiggle room, and I have to say, it's pretty scary.

Carolee Schneemann , Marilyn Minter , Narcissister , and other artists have used food to convey sexual liberation and transgression. Does food—cream piece in this case—have a similar connotation for you?
Of course cream has a sexual connotation. “Pieing,” or throwing any kind of food, is most often an act of political protest, a shaming of the empowered by the disempowered. But you put a woman on a pedestal and throw pies at her face and it’s hard not to free associate to a gang-bang. Whereas in political pieing, the victim is the powerful one. But this kind of victim/perpetrator duality is oversimplified—I’ve always felt like everything at the same time: victim, perpetrator; empowered, disempowered; on top of the world, an insecure girl. In relation to the #metoo climate, I think this piece is as much a portrait of the harassers as of the harassed.

What’s the relationship you hope for with pie-throwing participants? One of trust? Empathy?
My performances are fairly open-ended. I don’t have a script, I create a situation—I call it a prompt—and then the public engages however they engage. My guess is that it’ll be a lot harder for the people smashing pies in my face than it’ll be for me to receive them. The only thing I intend to do is take it: stand there, experience what's happening, not feel the need to make the person or the audience feel comfortable, just experience whatever it is I’m feeling, in public, unfiltered.

Jennifer Rubell, Partition Painting, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Adam Reich

You’ve exhibited the paintings with your number on them before. What was the most memorable conversation you had with a stranger?
A lot of people called me and said, "Okay what do I do now?" which I found profoundly interesting. There’s this assumption about art that the viewer can only receive, can only follow the artist. My response is always, "Well what do you want to talk about?” and a lot of the time people would just tell me how much they loved my paintings. I’d be perfectly happy to talk about their lives. Or anything.

Jennifer Rubell: Consent will be on view at Meredith Rosen Gallery, New York, through March 17.