Art

The Potent Realism of Robert Pruitt’s Black Portraiture

Pruitt unexpectedly makes draftsmanship feel relevant, even urgent.

Robert Pruitt, “Usher Board President” (2018), charcoal, conté, and coffee on paper, 84 x 60 inches (image courtesy the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery, Seattle)

LOS ANGELES — Robert Pruitt is an artist devoted to draftsmanship and in the last several years he has doubled down on his drawing, achieving a new level of mastery. Devotion, a substantial exhibit at the California African American Museum (CAAM) of his large works on paper as well as some sculptures, provides an opportunity to understand the course of his work over the last decade. The show includes objects from CAAM’s permanent collection that speak to some of Pruitt’s interests, including a painting by Robert Thompson and another by Charles White, a Yoruba Gelede Headdress, John Biggers lithographs, and Shirley Chisholm Presidential Campaign buttons.

Throughout his career, Pruitt has melded symbols of Afro-futurism, black power, and African art history to create images of black Americans that strike free of white supremacy’s bonds. In many of Pruitt’s pictures, the symbols are as important as the individuals being portrayed: hair shaped into a Nubian pyramid, a superhero costume, spacesuit, a rifle, a Black Panther shirt. In the drawings from the last two years, however, the symbols are much subtler and the particularity of the people portrayed more powerful.

Installation view of Devotion at the California African American Museum (photo by Brian Forrest)

“Usher Board President” (2018) is a tour de force. A church usher’s role is one of leadership and service, having both practical and spiritual dimensions. Pruitt has drawn this woman with great reverence on an imposing seven-foot sheet of paper, depicting the various textures of hair, flesh, and fabric with tremendous sensitivity. Her eyelids are half lowered in focused thought and her posture is perfectly straight, conveying moral rectitude. One hand is held to her chin, and she holds a pencil, indicative both of her own responsibilities and the artist’s. Everything about her signals that she takes her role seriously, as does Pruitt. Into the upper bodice of the woman’s dress, he quietly positions symbols of planets, the sun, and the African continent. Situating these emblems unobtrusively on her chest, he places them by her heart, emphasizing their importance while preventing them from dominating the image or pushing it into the realm of either fantasy or fiction. The drawing projects her authority and beauty, conveyed in no small part by the solidity with which Pruitt articulates the volumes of her form. I saw a father standing with his son in front of this drawing, the boy must have been about 10 years old, and the wonder on that child’s face as he gazed up reminded me of the viral photograph of two year-old Parker Curry staring up in awe at Michelle Obama’s official portrait by Amy Sherald.

Robert Pruitt, “I Turned Myself into Myself” (2018), charcoal, conté, pastel on paper (image courtesy the artist and Koplin Del Rio Gallery)

“I Turned Myself Into Myself” (2018) is an odd and beguiling drawing. It consists mostly of flowing line, tracing the spill and fold of drapery over a couch and the supine body of a woman lying across its length. The woman’s head is fully rendered, as is her foot and a hand that holds an open comic book showing the Silver Surfer being called to his feet by his creator and enemy, Galactus. Pruitt may have chosen this image because the comic artist Jack Kirby is among his inspirations, or he may sneaking in an allegory, since the Silver Surfer originally served Galactus but eventually found liberty. The word bubbles on the comic’s page show Galactus commanding “I bid you rise!” and the drawing suggests Pruitt wants the woman on the couch to do the same. Her expression is one of serious introspection, the reading light clipped to her hair casts a cold glow around her eyes. The sheet draped over her is a chrysalis, and the feeling is that she will emerge transformed.

Pruitt occupies a willfully idiosyncratic place in contemporary art. Drawing in charcoal, conte, and pastel, he uses a volumetric realism whose roots lie in the European art academies. It is unusual to see carefully modeled charcoal figures outside life model classes, and it is certainly rare to find it in art galleries. Pruitt unexpectedly makes a discipline that predates modernism feel relevant, and even urgent. It is perhaps this very realism that is essential for Pruitt in representing black Americans, so that they can compete with and subdue the condemnatory images still prevalent on screens of all kinds.

Robert Pruitt: Devotion continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Dr, Los Angeles) through February 17, 2019.

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