New York

Rob Pruitt

Gavin Brown's enterprise | 620 Greenwich Street

On the heels of an edition of prints for the New Museum, an interview in Time Out New York, a page in the new magazine Gotham, and a glossy spread in a recent oversized issue of Visionaire, this glittery show, “Pandas and Bamboo,” completes Rob Pruitt’s comeback. To recap the well-known story: Back in 1992, Pruitt and his then-collaborator Jack Early earned accusations of racism with their exhibition at Leo Castelli, “Red Black Green Red White and Blue Project,” which included paintings and posters of well-known African Americans. The fallout was ugly, and effected Pruitt’s prompt dismissal from the art world. Then in 1998 he came out with Cocaine Buffet, a lengthy offering at a group show at an artist’s studio in New York’s meatpacking district. The piece was an experiment: How long would it take people to get down on their knees and start snorting? Not long: The opening-night crowd collectively partook and the coke was quickly consumed. Cocaine Buffet was not only a generous gesture (the artist paid for the coke himself) but proved to be a brilliant promotional strategy and one that endeared him to a particular segment of the art world. His similarly user-friendly (but less illegal) show “101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself” at Gavin Brown’s in 1999 signaled Pruitt’s reinstatement on the mainstream gallery circuit.

Pruitt’s story is worth retelling here because of how thematically interwoven it is with this latest show. Not surprisingly, the artist feels a real kinship with the panda: Like the endangered species, he has faced extinction. And what’s not to love? Protected, revered, the symbol of the World Wildlife Federation, the animal is an infallible alter ego. The panda has become Pruitt’s own brand-name icon, like Ralph Lauren’s polo pony. For this show, a total environment for the artist/bear was created. Ten potted bamboo trees flanked the main gallery entrance, and inside a sound track continuously played a dance beat with an ethereal female voice singing “I am the panda” over and over. There were eight large, glittery representations of pandas. These have become more sophisticated—no more of his earlier cartoonishly round, anime-inspired bears—and are meticulously based on photos of pandas in their habitats (some of the bamboo is patterned after Japanese brush paintings). The diptych Baby Panda, Mother Earth (all works 2001) functioned as signage, naming the artist, gallery, and dates and title of the show against a sparkly blue field. With a little alteration, this work would make a great banner announcing a special zoo exhibition (in fact, in a small side gallery, you could watch live footage of pandas in the San Diego Zoo). One work presents a close-up of a panda nibbling bamboo, another just some slender green bamboo stalks against a brown linen ground. The unbleached linen, which also appears in Black Forest, in which a lone bear seems to ponder the majesty of his jungle surroundings, underscores the naturalism of these scenes and makes the dense crystalline glitter all the more dazzling.

Pruitt’s giddy, appealing iconography doesn’t get gallery-goers as high as his earlier show did, but, as the artist has said, the fierce sparkle of the glitter does make for an intoxicating visual experience. Retrieved from the elementary-school crafts room, glitter seems to be liberally dusting a lot of work these days. Indeed, if one wanted a material metaphor for an art world about to collapse under the weight of its own fabulous excess, glitter would be the perfect choice. And though Pruitt’s embrace of the medium is rather too sincere and his work too sentimental, somehow the affiliation itself emits a knowing whiff of the critical.

Meghan Dailey