For the past six and a half years, Rob Pruitt has opened his laptop each morning and used Google to find an image involving President Obama to make a new painting. He’s looking for a “fresh, compelling” photo he told me one afternoon this week, as we stood amid some 500 of them—about a quarter of his output—inside a gallery space in Gavin Brown’s Harlem home. In May, the full set will go on view in full at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit.
The display at Brown’s space marked the first time Pruitt had seen any significant amount of these works together in one place, and he seemed a little staggered by their presence. “I would make each one, and slip it back into a cardboard box, and then maybe each box holds five, and then those packets of five go into a larger box that holds a hundred, and then I would send those off to mini-storage,” he said. “Of course I realized it was accumulating, but I never really realized…”
Displayed together, Pruitt’s Obama paintings are at once sweeping and banal. Walking into the gallery, the viewer is confronted with the sheer volume of work, which covers the walls floor to ceiling and features uniform blue-to-red (with a little lavender in the middle) gradient backgrounds painted with automotive aerosol paint. Closer inspection reveals figuration in white paint depicting the president engaged in a wide range of duties, from hard geopolitics to more lightweight PR fare (Bo the dog features prominently in at least one work).
The experience is overwhelming, a bit like being flooded all at once with six and a half years of AP wire photos, an abstracted distillation of the 24-hour news cycle washed out in soothing pastel. It also feels a little like those digitally rendered pictures that are comprised of many smaller pictures, except for the fact that no bigger image is created on Pruitt’s grid. The works are not arranged in any sort of chronological sequence; the images often end up bleeding into one another. It’s more of a collage than a timeline. “I can’t track my life on these,” Pruitt said, noting that it’s hard for him to recall the specifics of making any one work.
Pruitt was born in 1964 and as such started using the internet in his late 30s. He said that the web has “replaced television” for him and that he looks through Google News in bed in the morning. “I read the world news first, then the entertainment news,” the artist said. “The true me is in between those things.”
Close up, the paintings have gestural and painterly surfaces that have varying amounts of representation and abstraction. “I think that it is nice to have that variety, and the more time you spend with it, I myself really enjoy the abstract ones, because it’s a lot about memory anyway,” Pruitt said. “There are a lot of clues to figure things out, but with the more abstract ones, it can become more of an emotion, or a feeling, which is nice.”
For the MOCAD show, Pruitt will also for the first time be showing a piece called The Lincoln Monument, which consists of 200,000 pennies—$2,000—crammed into three stacked truck tires painted copper.
MOCAD’s executive director, Elysia Borowy-Reeder, who is curating the show, said in a phone interview that The Lincoln Monument is “a really nice counterpoint to the show,” a work that allows the exhibition to enter into a wider historical continuum.
As the show continues, Pruitt will continue to send his daily paintings to Detroit through the mail. “He’s going to continue his durational performance in New York,” said Borowy-Reeder.
Although the project seems like the very definition of a big, grand creative undertaking, Pruitt has a slightly different take. The paintings, he said, are “not as big of a commitment as watching a sitcom”—they usually taking less than 30 minutes to complete. They have been a way to mark time as well as kick-start and regiment his studio practice, where making paintings is usually closer to, according to Pruitt, “jumping off a cliff each time. I don’t know if it will succeed.”
Pruitt speculated that the project also has roots in his upbringing. “As a kid I would watch my grandmother not waste her leisure time because she was always doing something like knitting or needlepoint,” Pruitt said.
“I love little projects,” he added.