Through his painting, sculpture, and installations, artist Rob Pruitt has courted controversy. Most notorious was his 1998 work, Cocaine Buffet, which featured a 16-foot mirror with a line of real cocaine at the center. Since then, his works have walked a line between playfulness and provocation.
Currently, Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank (SIAB) is restaging Pruitt’s “Obama Paintings” exhibition (through August 25), which he originally created in 2009 during Barack Obama’s first term in office. Pruitt set out to create one painting of Barack Obama per day, each in a gradient that dissolves from red to blue. By January 20, 2017, he had completed nearly 3,000 of the canvases.
In 2013, the Aspen Art Museum (AAM) staged the first solo museum show of the artist’s work. On the occasion of the exhibition, the artist did an interview with AAM’s CEO Heidi Zuckerman. Here is an excerpt of that interview.
Heidi Zuckerman: People often try to contextualize things so they can understand them. Your work plays with the idea of what it means to understand and classify something—it problematizes that on purpose. If there isn’t a place for people to locate themselves that’s comfortable, then they have to be more open to what you’re offering. The title catches people off, too.
Rob Pruitt: It’s just friendly—I really love friendly things. That’s what I like to stand behind and put forth. I like very austere, dark, brutally honest things for other people, but for me, I like cozy, friendly things. It’s who I feel I am and how I want to represent myself. It’s how I feel comfortable communicating, like developing a narrative—I want to tell cozy, flannel-shirt stories, even if they’re bad. For example, as a culture, we are gluttonous and consume too much with no regard for the future, but that’s not a happy story, and I want to tell the cozier version of it.
Zuckerman: It’s a really nice way to talk about it. I’ve thought and talked about the idea of generosity in your work before. I find your work to be very generous not just with viewers—because there are different ways for people to interact with it (for example, visitors can actually snack on Skittles when they walk through your Aspen exhibition)—but you’re also generous with the topics that you address.
Pruitt: Yeah, I am. But there is also that prankster side of me where, with a piece like People Feeder (2010) that offers visitors Skittles, there’s a dark side. I’m suggesting that we have become a culture that needs some gratification every five minutes. You can’t walk from point A to point B without a few grams of sugar, and I’m addressing how strange that is. I’m also interested in art and how it makes people feel physiologically. If I’m giving people a slight sugar rush when they’re standing in front of one of my paintings, then I’m aiding in a feeling and tampering with it. I don’t know if it’s a lack of self‑confidence that I can’t just let the narrative of my panda paintings speak for themselves. I feel this need to give visitors a little dose of sugar so that they’re physiologically changed while they’re looking at them. The Bauhaus members said, “Less is more,” but I always thought that more is more, at least when I’m making my art.
Zuckerman: There are a couple of different forms that occur throughout your work, including the panda.
Pruitt: With the Madonna and Child panda paintings, aside from being based on Christianity, Jesus, and the Madonna, they are also based on something that we all relate to. We’ve all come from our mothers and have this bond. I thought that it needed updating in contemporary culture or a slight tweaking and rethinking. I wanted viewers to think of these panda paintings as the father and child. Not that I have any problem with motherhood—I love my mother—I just wanted to make a bookend to the Madonna and Child imagery from six hundred years ago. I thought it was worth addressing because I also love my father and the nurturing that he gave me. It’s also worthy of a painting to hang on the museum wall.
Zuckerman: I love how sensitive your work is to the complicated times in which we live. You’re able to address these topics in a way that is friendly and aesthetically available to the audience. There’s great power in that.
Pruitt: Thanks, that’s what I try to do. I want the work to be visually pleasing, but I also want to convey this message. It’s like opening a fortune cookie, but maybe a little more serious.