Robert Pruitt’s drawings abound with the artist’s signature, intriguing mix of African culture, science fiction, comic books, politics, and art history. An accomplished draughtsman, he layers these references to create a powerful message about race in modern America.
In “Flight Risk,” his latest exhibition at Koplin Del Rio, Pruitt delves deep into the Afrofuturism movement, continuing his exploration of identity through black portraiture. A co-founder of the Houston-based, black radical art collective Otabenga Jones & Associates, Pruitt intends his drawings to be a place where the constraints of society are forgotten. “The predicament of race in this country is so limiting,” he said in a talk about identity last year at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where his work hangs. “I am interested in what happens when those things don’t exist, and specifically, I’m wondering what do black people look like in the future without those limitations.” In the vision that pours out of his imagination, these future beings employ jetpacks and space helmets—accessories that allude to escape, the unknown, and the hunt for limitless space.
Pruitt typically uses friends and acquaintances as his subjects, photographing them in his studio before using the images to inform his drawings. He matches each figure with a different set of props and ideologies, coaxing maximum meaning out of each combination. If his grounds have an earthy feel, it’s because he covers his paper with washes made of substances like coffee, tea, fabric dye, and even wine. The effect is artistic, but it also brings to mind Africa’s colonialist history.
Pruitt’s commanding figures carry a sense of restrained pensiveness, holding steely gazes and strong stances along with their curious mix of identifying clues. The female hero of Captain America (2015), for instance, dons superhero spandex adorned with red bandana cloth, an intentional reference to the Bloods, the infamous Los Angeles gang.
Perhaps the most captivating work in the exhibition is the 10-foot-tall Garveyite Celestials (2015), the largest Pruitt has conceived to date. The image shows a seated man and woman snuggling affectionately with a rifle leaning between them. The man’s casual grip on the gun does nothing to undermine the couple’s sense of intimacy.
In several other drawings here, like Archangel (2015), Pruitt has removed human figures in favor of symbols referencing such events as the death of Eric Garner. According to Pruitt, the work is a kind of “floating altar.”
For Pruitt, the act of creating art free from pre-existing notions of race requires immersion in the narratives of black identity. “How does one really consider your place in the world and your connection to histories that are denied?” he has asked. “You have to start looking at these African histories and try to figure out do you have a place in that...you have to really start investigating those things and become steeped in those histories.”
“Flight Risk” is on view at Koplin Del Rio, Los Angeles, Oct. 29–Dec. 5, 2015.