Although Robert Pruitt’s Seattle debut at Prographica/KDR was a welcome sight, and as beautiful as the big drawings are, one pined for a few of his stunning paintings. The Houston-born African-American artist is attracting considerable attention with solo exhibits in New York (where he now lives), Los Angeles, and Johannesburg, South Africa, among other cities. Realistic yet sometimes futuristic, Pruitt’s drawings in Seattle concentrated on relationships between people, and many of the four- and five-foot high artworks paired individuals, women together and male-female couples, as well as single seated men and women. Except for Untitled (Red Ribbon Hair) and Phantom Lady (both 2016) in which the women literally look down on the viewer, all the other portrait sitters look away, as if in disgust, fear or anger.
Prographica/KDR’s old location, artist Norman Lundin’s studio, was used by Pruitt to create three drawings just for Seattle. Black is Beautiful, Us, and Abductee (all 2017) are paler and more ghostly than the others. The first two enclose, respectively, a male-female couple and two women together, back to back. The man and woman’s eyes are averted from one another in Black is Beautiful, the logo on the man’s tee-shirt. Another pair of women may comment on food shortages. In Food and Salt (After J-M Basquiat) (2016), they carry boxes of food and salt on their heads, as in Third World countries.
Each work on paper has a background of diluted brown tea that contrasts with the darker skin tones of the figures. In addition, legs are cropped at each base, echoing magazine illustration, or symbolically commenting on restricting confinements in urban settings or prisons. The mixtures of conté crayon, pastel, graphite and colored pencil enliven each work, rendering them more fully realized portraits despite their sketchy beginnings. Among the female standing figures, Untitled (Hair Skirt), Malcolm’s Camera and Untitled (Channeling Uhura), (all 2016), stand out, with bold expressions of contemplation or urgent waiting, all three with amazing hair styles. Among the men, vivid red, orange and pink backgrounds complement the male body, as in Untitled (Male Celestial Body) and Super Massive Deluxe (both 2016). A muscled chest and torso competes with an absurdly gigantic Afro haircut in the latter. Suppressed anger continually combines with deep sadness in Pruitt in ways few other American artists have attained.