Rob Pruitt turned 50 this year, and marked the occasion with the opening of this summer’s bi-annual artist retrospective at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, the sprawling complex owned by magazine mogul Peter Brant, just across the street from his family home. The show, taking its suburban locales and high art context as a point of departure, is a remarkable distillation of Pruitt’s practice over the last decades, and welcomes a renewed perspective on the artist’s own personal history in relation to his work.
Pruitt’s exhibition at the Brant Foundation, if anything, offers a fitting point of crystallization for much of his career, combining the “do-it-yourself” aesthetics of Martha Stewart Living (a magazine Pruitt once wrote a column for, offering quick shortcuts to high-class art objects on a low budget) with a cunning awareness of the breadth of American art history. In one room, the artist’s tire sculptures, which are in fact actual tires electroplated in silver, bear a striking parallel to similar works arrived at through casting or meticulous re-creation. “It’s just not like me to cast something in bronze,” he says.
Pruitt’s background, growing up in the suburban enclave of Rockland, MD, makes for a fitting point of analysis, combining the ready-made detritus of strip malls and parking garages with the alluring sheen of mass produced cultural goods. His works seem consistently teetering between irreverence and sincere homage, such as in his series of cartoonish faces, rendered in cut black velvet and laid over massive color gradients. The combination of elements, combining historical art themes, cartoonish comedy and even the banal signifier of the black velvet painting combine to push his works back towards his frequently revisited subject matter. In another work, his take on Hokuskai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, Pruitt casts a line of blue jeans filled in cement, gradually lifting their legs as they run down the length of the room, recalling the massive wave in equal measure with the images of 1950’s women’s lifestyle magazine workouts.
The same focus on the intersections of identity, value and commerce in contemporary work seems to float through Pruitt’s ongoing flea market installations, the latest iteration of which is presented here. Allowing visitors to purchase clothes, shoes, games, household wares and other objects from the Brants themselves, Pruitt emphasizes the suburban moorings of the Foundation and its patrons, while emphasizing a subtle mode of interaction between the owners and visitors. One can literally rummage through the family’s old belongings, bringing home luxury clothing and fine design works at a fraction of their original price, while maintaining a tenuous link to the family narrative. “There is a family at the center of this show,” Pruitt notes, indicating the objects on sale as well as the small heart-shaped replicas of earlier works showing various family member’s favorite works of his. “I wanted to weave that understanding into the exhibition. It’s like a portrait of sorts.”
It’s this link that Pruitt seems to understand better than most artists working today, the idea that perhaps the more banal elements of commodity capitalism, namely those of mark-downs, cheap imitations and second-hand ownership, could in fact be understood as an aesthetics not only of its own, but one that maintains a link to the “higher culture” it aims to mimic. For Pruitt, the act of creation is one that values this link, not in pursuit of the object itself, but in order to express the owner’s relationship to it, and their emphatic appreciation of the milieu it represents.
Rob Pruitt 50th Birthday Bash is on view through September.
— D. Creahan
Rob Pruitt 50th Birthday Bash [Exhibition Site]
The Artist Rob Pruitt: Paradox on a Pedestal [New York Times]
To Market, to Market with Rob Pruitt [NYT Magazine]
Rob Pruitt’s Quirky Perspective [WSJ]