Fake Plastic Trio

Barbie and Ken’s marriage is play-tested in Cruder’s Great Expectations

Ken’s eye is wandering. Barbie suspects that he’s developing a crush on Joe, the guy who cleans the pool at their idyllic, mid-century modern home. But that can’t be the case, can it? Barbie and Ken are made to go together, right?

Jana Cruder may have an answer to that enduring question. A high-fashion and celebrity photographer whose clients include Inked, Complex, Kore Swim, People, Cristophe of Beverly Hills and many others (including Vegas Seven), Cruder explored Barbie’s secret world in 2010’s What Lies Beneath, a photo series that cast live models as the American icon and her plastic retinue.

With Great Expectations, showing at Brett Wesley Gallery through Oct. 27, Ken is added to the mix. And if it seems Barbie’s traditional place is being usurped, Cruder says that’s pretty much the idea.

“A 30-year-old woman in our society was fed an ideal and a dream, and at a certain age you go, ‘Whoa, really?’ It was an eye-opening experience for me, to look at relationships and roles and wonder why society thinks I should be a certain way,” says Cruder of “the open-ended questions” that inspired the series. “If you don’t fit into what society thinks you should be as a woman or a man, or as a husband or wife, then who are you?”

For a show that contemplates such complex issues, Great Expectations is a lot of fun. It’s a genuine delight watching Ken and Joe’s furtive relationship play out in Cruder’s richly saturated cinematic scenes. In “Working Girl,” Barbie tries to seduce Ken while he sits on the bed, utterly oblivious. In “The New Normal,” Ken and Joe flaunt their union as Barbie leaves for work.

The models’ body language is, as one might expect, stiff and doll-like, and the house they inhabit—a beautiful modern Palm Springs, Calif., home of one of Cruder’s commercial clients—looks somehow unreal in the context of the shoot. For all intents and purposes, it’s Barbie’s Dream House. But there’s something in the way the models regard each other, or don’t regard each other, that evokes a real, very human response.

“The models understood that I wanted a not-here-but-here presence,” Cruder says. “Even though they have blank faces, there’s still a lot of emotion you can sense from the piece. It’s mostly about the dynamic between the models, instead of the individual models directly.”

The result is playful, eye-popping and a bit chilling—it’s more Mad Men than Toy Story. The photos are stunningly well lit (Cruder won’t reveal her techniques, although she hints that one of them involves “two large mirrors”), and the quality of the costuming and set dressing borders on Hitchcockian. This is Barbie and Ken’s first real cinematic appearance, Eyes Wide Shut notwithstanding.

And if you’re wondering what happens to Barbie, Ken and Joe moving forward, Cruder may have an answer to that, too. “I have two more shows to go right behind this one,” she promises.

Perhaps Barbie should brace herself for more disappointment.

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