ART: Robert Pruitt has Big Ideas for African American Portraiture in “Women”
by Raymond Herrera
Houston-based artist Robert Pruitt is known for his drawings, videos and installations which explore a unique way of representing African Americans in visual art. His portraits juxtapose characters based on people he knows, and from within his community, loaded with rich references from around the world, and across cultures and classes. He uses historical references, Jazz, Science Fiction, Hip Hop, comic books, and black political and social struggles, anything in art from Pop Art to Soviet Constructivism, and more. Every painting is a maze that challenges the viewer to walk through the Black experience, even in places and times that have no direct connection to the diaspora. His exhibition “Women,” which opened last month at The Studio Museum in Harlem, are visions of African American women through his surreal filter.
References used in this piece include Vladimir Tatlin’s Tatlin’s Tower Monument to the Third International (1919), as Nigerian hair braiding; Eternity, an abstract character in Marvel Comics’s Universe Series, and unused album-cover art for Sun Ra.
Here is Robin Crembalest’s coverage on Art News. The article does a great job of breaking down the references in text and a handy slide format. Of course everyone perceives art through their own experience but I think calling the show hillarious is really missing the point. Ok, so some of the juxtapositions are so incongruous that they may have a humorous element to them. But when you look at the works in their totality, hilarity is not the most prominent emotion that goes through me. The symbols used, as she describes in her own article, include the Black Panther movement; a reworked painting by Norman Lewis of KKK hoods; and the music of Sun Ra (a recurring theme in the series) whose sounds call to Saturn, far away from the stigmas of class and race. Pruitt tells Crembalest in Artinfo, “Blackness gets reduced in movies or wherever. I try and make them more expansive, piling on reference after reference.” The work seems to transcend way beyond becoming a humorous exercise, although we can all find a laugh here and there in tragedy.
The paintings are on view now at the Studio Museum in Harlem through Oct. 27th, 2013. You can get more information about the work here.
You can find out more about Robert Pruitt here.