Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Amish in the City: Rob Pruitt on a Rumspringa

by Drew Martin

Last week I was walking by GBE (Gavin Brown's Enterprise) and noticed a show so I popped in and had a look around.

Then I walked a few yards up to the neighboring gallery, Maccarone, and saw a continuation of the same show so I popped in and had a look around there too. Then I went back to GBE and then back to Maccarone.

It was very manic (this back and forth of mine) because all I had originally set out to do was buy some carrot juice at D'Agostino.

GBE is not a thinker's gallery (and that's not a criticism). It's about surface and size. The current show, Pattern and Degradation by Rob Pruitt, fits the bill. What is surprising, however, is to see it spill over into Maccarone, which tends to show more challenging work.

Pruitt's work, however, satisfies both galleries and proves here that that you don't always need good fences to make good neighbors. Maybe that was his salt of the earth intention in this Amish-inspired show.

The starting point for Pattern and Degradation is Rumspringa, a time of recklessness permitted to the plain youth before they officially accept to live an Amish lifestyle. Maybe you could call this... The show the Amish would love to hate. But perhaps they would openly express interest in his paintings, which reference their quilt patterns, or by how he transforms those blasphemous rubber tires of the English.

Sometimes when you are on Pennsylvania Dutch turf, (places such as Lancaster, Strasburg, Paradise, Bird in Hand and...no kidding...Intercourse) you will see young lads tilling and plowing the earth with six-mule teams. But if you get up close...perhaps to buy some fresh goat milk from one of the homes...you will notice things around the corner of a barn...such as a handful of older, bearded men piling into a minivan.

Pruitt's show is not only a nod to youthful urges but the Rumspringa awaiting every one, at every age.

There is literally fodder in the show, such as those tire stacks topped off with various snacks for the peckish viewer: pretzels, chocolate gold coins, candies and Oreos (like little versions of the tires) and there is also a lot of fun and, at times, formal elements.

In fact, the whole show could be categorized as fodder, fun and formal.

But there is even something deeper to say about those easy tire sculptures: Pruitt paints them in such a way to accentuate their functional patterns, and with that he creates abstract identities.

The most formal and contemplative work is a room of mismatched chairs (and by chairs I mean proper caned chairs, wheelchairs, lab stools and logs). In the one room there are 77 chairs, all facing large self portraits, giving the space a congregational feel. In another room, there are an additional 12 chairs, which, with planks of wood, make up four benches. All the "chairs" and "benches" are covered in chrome foil, which ties them together.

There are several series of paintings, including the large self portraits (ten at GBE); the images of which have been twice bisected, horizontally, and rearranged in exquisite corpse/random slot machine fashion.

One that stands out is the Christ crown of thorns/cartoonish eyes/bubble-gum-blowing mouth/bare shoulders. They are self-indulgent...but I guess that is the purpose of doing a self portrait...unless it is because no one else will sit for you.

But Pruitt has a lot of "friends," he shows off 1,344 of them in the Maccarone's window wall on Greenwich Street. They are locked in a 21x64 mural grid of their Facebook profile pictures, with their names identifying them. It is an interesting piece, especially since several of them are my "mutual friends."

Up on the wall, however, they suddenly seemed more his than mine, and perhaps they are. This is one of the more interesting works and one of several that originate from the Internet (like the collage of black and white cats with peculiar patches of black under their noses, which could only be amassed by a Google search: kittens + Hitler mustaches....or kitlers.)

Another piece, similar to the profile mural (and a great companion piece to it) covers one wall of GBE. From afar, it looks like a list of names, which will always allude to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC designed by Maya Lin and any other display of names of fallen soldiers and civilians (especially since it is only a half a mile up Greenwich Street from Ground Zero).

The listing is, however, Pruitt's personal email account, which shows sender, subject and time/date, which starts on March 4, 2006 and is cut off by noon of September 3rd, 2010. Whether or not Pruitt agrees, I think this is a very profound piece.

Though it lacks the visual references of the Facebook portraits, it is much more personal (perhaps private is a better word).

Similar to a registry of the deceased, it is hard to know how to approach it without feeling invasive, especially since there is information that many of the senders would not want on display; not only the topics of the email but also frequency of the correspondence.

Each of these works could launch a lot of discussions about the Internet, information and privacy but Pruitt often changes the subject with sabulous paintings of Woody Allen and surfing pandas.

There are even sculptures of benign creatures made from industrial bundles of cardboard, bound for recycling. They have a formidable presence because of their mass, which contradicts their light-heartedness embodied in their big, cartoonish eyes and multiple, short (and cankled) legs with matching brand-spanking-new shoes.

These benevolent monsters occupy one room at Maccarone and seem to be happy you've come to see them. They are the closest thing to Pruitt's welcoming committee: ready to greet you (and a minivan full of Amish elders out to have a little fun).