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Idea No. 28: Make a painting with make-up.

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Alison Gingeras

This deadpan, irreverent directive taken from 101 Art Ideas You Can Do Yourself, Rob Pruitt's 1999 exhibition at Gavin Brown's Enterprise, sends up a warning flare to anyone who would dare him simply as a "painter". Without an overview of Pruitt's turbulent career, this categorical oversimplification might be understandable. While his recent production has primarily involved making pictorial works on canvas it is impossible to understand these "panda paintings" apart from the tropes that run throughout his work. Underlying his use of the traditional medium runs a deeply humorous, sometimes flippant engagement with the history of conceptualism coupled with a brazen, insider commentary on the art world's contradiction and excess.

Pruitt's recent celebrated New York exhibition Pandas and Bamboo (2001) featured a series of enamel and glitter paintings. In order to understand his preoccupation with this beloved endangered species of bear as well as his recent foray into "painting", it is necessary to briefly backtrack to the artist's biography. Unlike his cuddly panda alter ego, Pruitt hasn't always been an art world darling. He unwittingly became an infamous figure in the early 1990s while working in collaboration with Jack Early. Pruitt completely disappeared off the map following their 1992 exhibition at Leo Castelli entitled Red, Black, Green, Red, White and Blue. In a climate of politically correct militancy, Pruitt and Early's attempt to discuss the commodification of African-American heroes by predominantly white-owned companies was attacked as cynical and racist. Not until his 101 Art Ideas exhibition in 1999 did Pruitt slowly begin to emerge from obscurity; his comeback campaign assured only after a public avowal of remorse for his Pruitt and Early days in a feature story in the New York Times.

Taken in this biographical context, Pruitt has chosen to harness the "power of the panda" as a weapon to woo and disarm a once hypercritical reception. The irresistible innocence and adorable-ness of his animal stand-in ("I am the panda" was sung over a dance beat throughout the exhibition) finds a subtle betrayal in Pruitt's choice to use glitter as opposed to oil or acrylic paint to render his otherwise "realist" subject matter. Whether resurrected from summer camp "arts and crafts" sessions, or perhaps from a timely sense of nostalgia for the decadence of Eighties fashion, there is a crypto-critical edge underpinning Pruitt's glitter pandas.

The facetious devaluation of painting's history, weight, and aura implicit in "Art Idea No. 28" seems to be pushed further in Pruitt's turn to "painting" with his most recent series. Riding the crest of the art-market boom of the end of the 1990s, the choice to make "paintings" is both economically savvy and aesthetically consensual. Always pushing things to their limit, Pruitt capitalizes on his glitter not only for its intoxicating visual qualities but for a light handed commentary on the art world's status quo. As critic Meghan Dailey has noted, "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."

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