Thanks to Howard Halle’s end of the year list nominating Rob Pruitt as one of his top ten exhibitions of the year, I revisited Halle’s review of the show over the holidays. The money quote from Halle:
At once insipid kitsch figure and boyhood madeleine, the panda makes its return in this new exhibit, after a considerable absence. It serves as a touchstone for the show's hilarious if slightly mean-spirited unpacking of our current culture, and how it impacts the branding of artistic identity.
That critter, along with its similarly colored cohort in the animal kingdom, the zebra, appears in numerous paintings, which are sometimes flocked with glitter. But more interestingly, its black-and-white scheme extends to a phallanx of tire planters filled with M&M's, cigarettes and other goodies, all free for the taking. In one fell swoop, Pruitt seems to be calling bullshit on the faux populism of Richard Prince's down-on-its-luck Americana, and the faux generosity of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's candy giveaways. But Pruitt hardly spares himself. His doleful mug stares out from a series of large paintings based on the old Surrealist exquisite-corpse game, in which a piece of paper is drawn upon, then folded and passed to another person who repeats the process. The resulting visual non sequitur is transmuted here into photo silk-screens on canvas, featuring the artist's countenance fissioned into horizontal identikit bands. There's one at Maccarone of Pruitt in a Mouseketeer cap, sucking on a lollipop while sporting one of those T-shirts with COCAINE spelled in Coca-Cola lettering. At GBE, a group of them faces rows of chairs of varying style and vintage, each wrapped in chrome foil as if they'd died and gone to heaven. The congregational feel of this arrangement, combined with Pruitt's slippery views of himself, suggests that any artist, if they're going to be good at all, must be a synthesis of prophet and fraud.
There is a whole lot more here—Amish quilts rendered in graffiti spray paint; weird Day-Glo color-field compositions, sweetened with crudely drawn smiley faces; cute “monsters” created from recycled stacks of cardboard, with googly eyes made from wall clocks—all buoyed, perhaps, by a dark recognition that when a high culture with all the marbles borrows from a low culture left with nothing, the results are more cringe-inducing than anything else. But then, Pruitt's work has always been predicated on the hard art-world truths that the extended hand is always balanced by the one with the knife behind the back—and that self-abasement can bring with it a shiver of self-knowledge.
Meanwhile, I jotted down a few of my own thoughts for Art Agenda, offering a different take on the matter.
Rob Pruitt’s joint exhibition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise and Maccarone, “Pattern and Degradation,” presses a few of my buttons. Even before stepping into the gallery I had some concerns—the notion of filling over 8,200 square feet with two years of new work without compromising quality seems a stretch, so naturally the show’s theme is about excess. According to the press release, the work is informed by the Amish tradition of Rumspringa, a two year rite of passage in which Amish teenagers are allowed to indulge in all the excesses of modern life before returning to a more modest existence. Pruitt’s exhibition posits a world in which he lives in a “Permanent Rumspringa,” a concept that sounds suspiciously like a marketing ploy to explain over-production.
Seeing as how only two rooms of eight directly deal with Amish culture, there’s not much reason to think otherwise even if indulging in contemporary excess is likely to occasionally exclude a lot of the religion. At the far end of Gavin Brown, rows of both modernist and traditional Amish chairs coated in silver weakly gesture to the religion, as do a number of large patterned paintings referencing traditional Amish quilting. The basic gist of these pieces seems to be “What if my tablecloth could be large and bold enough to create optical vibrations?”
As one might imagine, there’s a fair amount of art exhibited that appears to have no other purpose than to be sold. This is particularly true at Gavin Brown, the weaker arm of the exhibition. A room full of exposed, stretched linen provides a surface for illustrative renderings of “Rob Pruitt” t-shirts. The same shirts hang just inside the office, only they can be worn and aren’t nearly so pricey. Add to this, the artist’s inbox printed out and affixed to the wall, a giant grid of faces and names drawn from his Facebook profile (at Maccarone), and his goofy Warholian self-portrait paintings—these works are characterized by gratuitous self-absorption: a problem the theme of excess is meant to excuse.
In an email last week, Halle tabled the idea that Pruitt’s work achieved a state of grace through superficiality, an idea he tied to spirituality and religion. This made sense to me until I realized that when Christians ask for the grace of the Lord, and the Amish indulge in Rumspringa, they are seeking presence not absence. The spirit of Lord should be with us, the Amish will achieve greater awareness through the process of Rumspringa. And there’s a practical purpose to this — that presence gives us greater agency.
There can be no grace in an exhibition that so successfully embraces the ugliness of excess. Perhaps I’d do well to laud Pruitt for this — he did after all achieve his goals — but I can’t. The exhibition re-enforces a stagnancy I think is corrosive to society as a whole, and I just don’t think it’s a good idea to get behind that.
Related: Urs Fischer at The New Museum.