New York

Pruitt • Early

Castelli Gallery | Uptown

Pruitt • Early’s Red Black Green Red White Blue Project could be the “nigger drawings” of the ’90s. Two white artists, whose previous works drew on the stereotyped iconography of teenage white trash, now turn their attention toward American black culture with dispiriting results. The artists have covered the floor and walls of the gallery with gold foil, a stylistic gesture that the handy press release informs us “comment[s] on the status emblems in black youth culture and the historical links to the African gold trade as symbolic of the reemergence of a denied history.” These gift-wrapped walls are festooned with posterlike images of L. L. Cool J, Malcolm X, Magic Johnson, Public Enemy, and the like, as well as cheesy illustrations depicting blacks with big tits, big Afros, but, oddly, no big dicks. A stereo system provides a musical soundtrack that features, primarily, rap music.

The press release for the Red Black Green Red White Blue Project is itself a masterpiece of confused multi-culty obfuscation: “Pruitt • Early seek to (re)present the image of the Black subject within contemporary popular culture through the documents and emblems of mass culture. By examining the depiction of the African-American subject within the mass-articulated image, they raise issues concerning contribution, marginalization, and self-representation.” Marginalization? Most of the people whom Pruitt • Early fetishize are, as anyone who watches MTV knows, decidedly mainstream. (Re)presentation? These images of sports heroes, sexual dynamos, and finger-snappin’ natural-rhythm machines reiterate the most stereotyped white notions of black cultural “contributions.” Self-representation? On the contrary, representation by the usual white masters, who have always owned everything and who, on the evidence of this show, can now without a trace of self-consciousness or irony lay claim to the “Black Cultural consciousness.” So what’s new? Pruitt • Early’s effort recalls the familiar scenario in which a white woman sings a soul song with an army of black backup singers. And this kind of routine exploitation neatly colludes with post-Modern quotation and pastiche. Everything belongs to everybody; anyone can use anything. Context ceases to matter.

The gulf between the well-meaning but deluded let’s-pretend meanings that the press release ascribes to Red Black Green Red White Blue Project and what the show actually offers is absolute. It isn’t even worth entertaining the lame transgression involved in whites representing blacks, which might be taken as the show’s basic conceit. Conceptually thin and materially shoddy, this show is a travesty of black history and black art—a racist vaudeville act. The press release begins with an epigraph that is strangely mordant in context; Ani Dike Egwuonwu remarks, “If a people of the same race fail to have a recorded history, their achievements might be forgotten and sometimes, claimed by others.” Pruitt • Early are the honky scribes of this “failure.”

David Rimanelli