I recently had the opportunity to visit Rob Pruitt. He's most recently known for his all-over paintings of cuddly pandas, but he's so much more than that.
Pruitt told me that he was schooled in a nurturing environment which engendered empathy for others, where the kids at school wore T-shirts emblazoned with the acronym, IALAC, standing for "I am Lovable and Capable." He decided to use the panda as his subject--lovable indeed. Adorable and "equally black and white", the panda perhaps became a stand-in for the soft-spoken, yet perceptive and witty Pruitt himself. Pruitt started creating colorful glittery paintings using found images of the cute bear. Pointing to the in-process works on the studio walls, Pruitt explained that each smaller picture in the composition of panda images has a meaning to him, as it triggers various memories of when the image originally entered his panda-lexicon.
In his productive career, Pruitt has already experienced some ups and downs (currently again on the up and up!) But, he doesn't necessarily care to know how his artworks fare in the secondary art market. Pointing at a smaller picture of pandas knawing on bamboo stalks before a background of stylized bamboos within a larger composition, he noted that a larger work featuring the very same image was being auctioned off at Phillips that very night we were chatting. (For the auction result, click here…but only if you're interested!)
Interestingly enough, Pruitt does enjoy flea markets. The mounting of flea markets in rarefied art locations, including galleries and art fairs, has been a relatively constant method of experimentation for Pruitt. Pruitt mentioned that he enjoys providing a space that allows makers and buyers to connect and communicate. Just in time for the holidays, Pruitt has been bringing this concept to the on-line space through his rpsfleamarket eBay page, where he has been selling items from his collection of amassed objects (together with a very kitschy, but super fabulous photograph of the object signed by Pruitt himself).
Pruitt thinks that some of the people who follow his eBay presence are 'definitely art people', as panda-themed items typically get sold for higher prices. Objects that look like or feature images of pandas from Pruitt's collection enter this secondary market with a penumbra of having passed through Pruitt's hands, giving the object an afterglow of significance relative to other panda objects. For example, compare the stuffed pandas at left, and the stuffed panda at right, both similar in shape and size. (The one on the right--from Pruitt's page--sold for $405.) Even through the Internet, you can experience feeling connected to Pruitt, perhaps even inheriting a piece of Pruitt-history--and such an experience clearly has a market value.
What I find to be one of the most incredible aspects of Pruitt's artwork is that while it spans extremes and manages to capture zeitgeist, it is not ironic in anyway. Irony requires a cool, distanced step away from the subject of its gaze. However, Pruitt is committed to his practice and to his subject matter, and in that way, both he and the work are extremely genuine. Pruitt's ideas (and there are many) are so good that the work can be deceptively simple, glittery and fun, and yet still meaningful. Perhaps that is what continues to make his work sincere.
Thanks to Rob Pruitt for his time and generosity, and to Sayaka Toyama for some of the photos.