LOS ANGELES — There is no mistaking the depth of investment in Flight Risk, Robert Pruitt’s new show at Koplin Del Rio. Eleven drawings on paper in charcoal, pastel, and mixed media range from large to enormous, possessing an authority won through years of honing his draughtmanship. Made while Pruitt was on residency earlier this year at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, the finished works bear witness to a laser focus achieved during his stay.
Nine of the drawings contain imagery for which Pruitt is known: powerfully posed black men and women dressed in contemporary clothing, superhero uniforms, and space suits — outfits the artist has tweaked with additions ranging from power cables to guns, gang symbols to Basquiat references, along with traditional African fabric patterns and ceremonial sculptures. Although the motifs are familiar, these works differ from past efforts in two significant ways: the disparate references are more deeply interwoven than ever, and in the best pieces his drawing reaches a mastery that will make you catch your breath. Charcoal can be a sloppy medium (believe me, I’ve taught undergraduate drawing), but Pruitt precisely delivers the shine of a polished leather shoe, the sensuality of living flesh, or a soft cascade of feathers. Pentimenti are left visible where he has moved a foot, searched out the contours of a face, or changed his mind about a headdress. His looseness engenders a sense of freedom that prevents the drawings from feeling like a blinkered exercise in craft.
I heard somebody at the opening associate Pruitt with Kehinde Wiley, but Pruitt captures me for the same reasons Wiley fails to excite. Where Wiley’s paintings look outsourced, so slick and mechanical as to be dead on arrival, Pruitt’s work is brimming with the passion of personal engagement. Wiley objectifies his models, their beauty on display and their identities largely reduced to a signifier; to my knowledge, he has little direct relationship with those who pose for him. Pruitt has always drawn men and women he knows well, hiring people to pose for only one work in this show, the first time he has ever done so (he told me he spent time getting to know them, because he felt it necessary). Pruitt’s figures feel more individually alive than any of those in Wiley’s superficial spectacles.
“Garveyite Celestials,” towering 10 feet high and 8 feet wide, depicts a beautiful young African American couple seated and leaning into each other, their arms tenderly interwoven, an M4A1 Carbine nestled between them in such a way that you might miss it at first glance. The woman has extra ammo clips tucked smartly into her hatband like feathers; her lover wears his hair in a Nubian pyramid. They are drawn against a red ground that Pruitt deftly exploits to give their flesh glowing warm tones. The juxtaposition of gentle intimacy with an assault rifle is subtly achieved (no mean feat). I felt wonder standing before this work, attributable less to the size of the image than to the sensitive majesty of Pruitt’s drawing.
Two works point in novel directions, “Riding Death” and “Archangel.” The former shows a tiger upon whose head rests a small sculpture of two figures on horseback, with a blue bandana folded underneath, referencing the Crips. The picture alludes to a skit by comedian Cat Williams about tigers in the zoo as a metaphor for the black experience. It is one of the two weaker drawings in the show, but the first time Pruitt has drawn an animal and potentially a harbinger of exciting work to come. In “Archangel,” a flying drone is draped with votive offerings including flowers, cigarettes, a wad of cash, and a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. Equipped with both surveillance cameras and ordinary handheld ones, it brings to mind the reciprocal watchfulness of law enforcement and the citizen cell phones that record police action. Technology has always appeared as a functional adornment on Pruitt’s figures, but here it becomes the main character, an ambivalent altar.
Pruitt loads his work with references to back-to-Africa movements and Afrofuturism, Basquiat paintings, and the slave trade. His drawings come with a social mission, and the art world, with its self-congratulatory political posturing, is not ideal for bringing such urgently felt ambition to the street, where the black body is unquestionably under assault. Nevertheless, the power to shape one’s own representation is central to self-determination, as evidenced by the meme #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which erupted after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. During the opening, a teacher from a public school in Compton told Pruitt that her students do a research project on him every year, and she will be bringing her class to see the exhibit. Pruitt intimates a future of open horizons with his jetpacks and space suits, but perhaps more importantly, he gathers up the past, including the militancy of Marcus Garvey and the Black Panthers, and beyond them to the richness of African art that precedes colonialism and North American slavery. Pruitt consciously chooses his ancestors and in so doing, his identity. It’s no accident he often uses the figure’s head as a locus of symbolic references. Art somehow filters into our consciousness, and though the seep is slow and incremental, it is real and it matters.
Robert Pruitt: Flight Risk continues at Koplin Del Rio (6031 Washington Blvd, Culver City, California) through December 5.