I expected Robert Pruitt’s pieces to smell like coffee. I got right up close to them, nose first, preparing to take in a heady whiff—they didn’t though. Just got a noseful of gallery. The Houston-born, Brooklyn-based artist renders black and brown skin with the drink, soaking a T-shirt in coffee, and then rubbing it on paper, resulting in a brown wash that can be built up to make different skin hues as necessary.
His show at Koplin del Rio in Pioneer Square, The Majesty of Kings Long Dead, presents some of his new monumental drawings, all in a beautiful, sepia wash of coffee, gold leaf, and pink dye. All of black people. Taking its name from a W.E.B. DuBois short science fiction story, The Comet, the show processes how we figure an African-American identity into our vision of the future, space, and where and how we belong.
Pruitt pulls a lot from comics, science fiction, the divine—thus his look upwards. Spirituality and the heavens are enlaced throughout his work with many of his paintings of black figures bearing the names of celestial bodies. I asked myself, What if "Mars" loved the Houston Rockets and bumped Megan Thee Stallion? Or if "Saturn" had a TWA? What if we saw ourselves in the stars? In naming these figures after galactic beings and including astronomical elements into his drawings, he's making this connection between blackness and space (thus, the future) explicit.
When Pruitt talks about his work, he often engages the Royal "we," never unclear about who exactly he's speaking to. It reminds me of when Toni Morrison talked about not catering to a white audience in a 1998 interview:
"Being an African-American author is sort of like being a Russian writer, who writes about Russia, in Russian, for Russians. And the fact that it gets translated and read by other people is a benefit. It's a plus. But he's not obliged to ever consider writing about French people, or Americans, or anybody.”I think it’s helpful to think of Pruitt’s work similarly but through a visual language. His work easily engages and is enjoyed by a wide audience, but it does not seek to cater or explain.
At the artist talk, moderator Larry Ossei-Mensah recounted looking at “Man with Halo” with a woman who remarked that Pruitt must have been referencing a Greek god. The nudity, the muscles, the gaze that’s quietly desirous. Ossei-Mensah seemed hesitant to agree with her read. When he brought it up to Pruitt, the artist quickly corrected the woman’s assertion: the real reference is the nude black bodies seen in drawings of slave ships. Laid out one next to the other, like cargo. Worlds away from any marble statue.
“It's an automatic reading that people are going to do, but it's not necessarily the thing I was working from,” Pruitt told us. We can then read “Man With Halo” as a sort of corrective, a balm, a commemoration of the lives lost on the Middle Passage—that those bodies, too, should have been venerated in a way that Zeus and maybe Achilles had the privilege of being. That halo carries a different weight now.
Other symbols are tucked into Pruitt’s work—most notably in the form of a herringbone gold chain, an item he said he coveted as a young person. It, to him, functioned as a symbol of beauty, elegance, and literal value. It adorns the only straight facing portrait in the gallery “Ganymede,” is the halo above that male nude, and is threaded through the fingers, like prayer beads, of a figure in “Black and Red Power Crew.”
One of the largest and most dynamic pieces in the show, “Black and Red Power Crew" features four black figures as they coalesce in a circle, mid-conversation. Pruitt’s recreation “crowns” these men in different ways; with a hi-top fade and a balding. Most strikingly, one man is crowned with an Orrey (a mechanical map of the solar system that’s still plugged into the wall) and the other has a paper bag over his head with the sign of Basquiat, who often represented himself with a three-pronged crown.
The Majesty of Kings Long Dead is an immensely beautiful show that is imperative viewing if you live here in Seattle. You have the opportunity to get close to the work. KDR is not some drafty museum space but a gallery that hugs you, brings you in. I felt the warmth of the paper—that brown!—and the glinty gold were loving me right. It'll love you, too. It'll teach you, too.