Rob Pruitt

New York


Building upon the Anabaptist principle of adult rather than infant baptism, the Amish have a tradition known as Rumspringa. The practice offers Amish teenagers a pivotal choice—put bluntly, either you’re in or you’re out—following a period of experimentation with secular culture, including wearing non-Amish clothes, watching Hollywood movies, driving a car and often smoking, drinking and using drugs. Inspired by the custom’s intimation of anything goes (Rumspringa translated from Pennsylvania German means “running around”), New York-based artist Rob Pruitt adopted the custom as the premise for this recent, punningly titled exhibition, “Pattern and Degradation.” Occupying two galleries and over 8,000 square feet, the show’s diverse collection of images and objects demonstrated Pruitt’s voracious appetite for multiple realms of visual culture, while simultaneously alluding to his own past art and art-world experiences. True to the spirit of Rumspringa, the show was a purposefully manic picaresque, as if created by someone burning through an unrestricted stylistic license about to expire.

Of the exhibition’s approximately 10 different series (all works 2010), painting held sway, even in some of the sculptural pieces. On view at Gavin Brown were three large black-and-white “Panda Pattern” paintings rendered with enamel and glitter on canvas. The central canvas (approximately 8 by 12 feet) featured the artist’s iconic giant panda image framed by zebra stripes, while an adjacent painting showed the bear in a field of tires, as if wandering through Allan Kaprow’s 1961 installation Yard. The series’ pulsating black/white binary produced a camouflage effect reiterated in several nearby “People Feeder” sculptures, each consisting of three to four truck tires stacked vertically and with the tire treads painted white. Set neatly inside the circular opening at the top of each stack is a stainless steel bowl filled with goodies for visitors to take, such as pretzels and various wrapped candies. Despite its visual appeal, the work implies a potential to degrade those who would consume treats from what amount to columns of industrial waste. The installation also seemed to be an acerbic response to the gift economies of Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In the “Rumspringa Quilt” works, the artist imitates Anabaptist embroidery and patchwork patterns using spray paint on linen. Although stenciled, the paintings’ execution appeared relatively loose if not unpolished. “Exquisite Self-Portraits” invoke the Surrealist pictorial game—more by virtue of the title than in execution—as Pruitt digitally collaged onto large canvases three or four horizontal bands featuring photo fragments of his head and chest. Wearing a beret here, a Breton seaman shirt there, the artist puffs on a cigarette in one image and awkwardly accepts an erect cock (perhaps a dildo) in his mouth in another. Each section is colorized with a different bright hue. The style of this series is clearly indebted to Warhol’s ironic identity play in his photo-booth self-portraits. Among other works at Gavin Brown were paintings of novelty T-shirts, “Rob Pruitt’s T-Shirt Collection” and an entire wall covered with inkjet-on-adhesive-vinyl wallpaper that features a list of thousands of messages from Pruitt’s Gmail inbox spanning four years.

Next door at Maccarone, the artist presented inkjet-on-canvas photographs of Cinnabons that he “iced” with ropy streams of iridescent paint, plus a collection of human-scale standing figures, baled cardboard “Monsters” possessing large, googly eyes made of working plastic wall clocks. While the artist’s eclectic mix of images and materials throughout the exhibition relied on Warhol’s visual language and Duchamp’s approach in his assisted readymades, it should be noted that, for Pruitt, culling is an expression of delectation. In the pleasurable pursuit of self-representation (that is, in the demonstration of what he likes), Pruitt’s art displays none of the spectrality attributed to Warhol nor the indifference of Duchamp.Ostensibly, the enjoyable activity of self-representation further provided Pruitt with a valuable coping mechanism during his self-proclaimed Rumspringa. As often mentioned in the press, he was virtually ostracized from the art world after mounting an exhibition in the early 1990s (with his then-partner, Jack Early) that some considered racially insensitive, if not racist. Beyond invoking a connection between expulsion and freedom, Pruitt now proposes an interesting question vis-à-vis his assistant-dependent, scaled-up, two-gallery show. Does the artist emerge from a state of contrition by assuming a grand, self-mythologizing position of Pop supremacy, or does he surreptitiously mock the community that shunned him by exhibiting his own taste-based brand, using any style he pleases? Whatever the answer, one senses that Pruitt is present, accounted for and affirmatively unbridled.

The exhibition was on view Sept. 11-Oct. 23.

Photos (left) View of Rob Pruitt’s “People Feeders” (foreground), and “Panda Pattern Paintings” (on wall), both 2010. Right, Exquisite Self-Portrait: Father Martian, 2010, silkscreen on canvas, 84¼ by 63½ inches. Both at
Gavin Brown’s enterprise.