The pieces of the “puzzle” gradually come together. And the Japanese concept of umami comes to mind. Robert Pruitt’s Woman with X-Patterned Dress (after Bill Traylor) is simultaneously salty, sweet, and sour; a bit magical and mostly mysterious.

There is a synergy about the painting on butcher paper that joins identity and process. Robert Pruitt is a stylistic polymath producing art in a variety of mediums and paintings. This painting represents both personal and cultural concerns. Looking closely is rewarded when you notice the box cutter partially hidden behind the women’s back, as if to cry out, “I’ve had it.”  Box cutters have a fraught history in America. Despite the diversity of the African American population, there is an undercurrent of collective oppression. Witness an artist who once worked briefly designing craft projects for Martha Stewart flexing his visual muscles to remind viewers of the trouble he’s seen. The visual tension Pruitt portrays is palpable. Note the butcher-paper hue and that of the subject’s skin. The lighting contrasts support the mystery. And at the same time, the brown and black hues dance as comfortable partners. The figure is in profile in a patterned dress. But the facial expression is both confident and quizzical. Without background noise, the figure strengthens and presages a violence that just might be out there. Roughly the size of life, the lone figure warily presents. And I am reminded that after all, we all put our pants on one leg at a time.

Pruitt’s image indeed touches a nerve. We can write our own story from this image.

Upon retiring in 2009, Ruth Quattlebaum “fed her passion” by training for and subsequently guiding public and private tours at the ICA. 

Friday Art Notes are personal reflections on works of art shown or in the permanent collection of the ICA, written by ICA staff, volunteers, and supporters. Read more