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“Janus” wears an ancient African mask on the back of her head. Conté crayon and charcoal

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by Dan Oko | Houston magazine | November 29, 2012

“With great power comes great responsibility.” The notion may have been popularized by Spider-Man, but Robert Pruitt, 37, could have just as easily picked it up at art school.

As a boy growing up in Houston’s Third Ward, he found artistic inspiration in the superhero comics his older brother collected. Those boyhood obsessions never went away entirely for Pruitt, whose portraits of African-Americans are increasingly collected and lauded. They’re at once lifelike and larger-than-life—with characters clad in a combination of traditional African costumes, hip-hop garb, and space-age outfits lifted from Star Trek—often humorous and easily engaging on the surface but rife with varied cultural references and social uplift. “TSU opened my mind up,” says Pruitt, crediting his Texas Southern University teachers for instilling a sense that art should have a positive meaning. “They had that whole social responsibility thing going on.”

Not unlike a superhero, Pruitt—with new work splashed in edgy shows all around south Texas, and with pieces in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Dallas Museum of Art and New York’s Studio Museum of Harlem—is a new kind of revolutionary. His post-20th-century perspective, bringing together the high and the low, provides a window into the African-American experience by including all matter of references, such as sci-fi and comic books, that the sober racism dialect usually avoids.

With his provocative and popular work in mind—which is affecting the way artists, and the rest of us, see race—Houston magazine names Pruitt 2012’s Artist of the Year.

“Robert has found his own way to address African-American identity,” says Alison de Lima Greene, curator of contemporary art at the MFA, which owns a Pruitt piece called “Illicit Magic and Secret Arts: Me Love You Long Time,” a playful mashup drawing of a woman in African ceremonial dress and high heels.

Such ambitious, eye-popping portraits allow Pruitt—a stocky, determinedly casual dresser, who also has an MFA from UT, and a pretty live-in girlfriend in fellow artist and actress Autumn Knight—a way to explore thorny questions without resorting to polemics or racial clichés. A visual trickster, Pruitt displays humor in his multimedia work as well, using both drawings and three-dimensional fabrications to recast his subjects as characters in a time-bending science-fiction drama. His finely detailed charcoal and Conté crayon illustrations, most recently on hand-dyed paper, deftly imagine many of his friends and neighbors as celestial black superheroes, juxtaposing ancient and futuristic motifs.

“This is how things could look if we get past this colonial mindset,” says Pruitt. “I’m trying to show what a positive black future looks like.”

He’s trying pretty hard. Earlier this year he offered a striking exhibition of drawings at the Galveston Arts Center. And his This Rejection of the Conqueror multimedia installation landed at Beaumont’s Art Museum of Southeast Texas, where one room was dedicated as an altar to “Oba,” a portrait of a regal, seated man wearing a percussion synthesizer around his neck. (Toys and books were laid out in front of the drawing indicating the points on Pruitt’s visual and moral compass—from Star Wars figurines to a biography of the late, pioneering 1970s Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan.) Currently he’s also participating in the oh-so-buzzy Station Museum’s (1502 Alabama St. 713.529.6900) HX8 group show, up through Feb. 17.

The artist has also won acclaim for his work with Otebenga Jones and Associates, a pop-minded collective whose other members include Jamal Cyrus, D. Gabari Anderson, and Kenya S. Evans. Previously featured at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and by the Menil, Otebenga Jones this spring created the inaugural installation at the new Houston Museum of African American Culture, and as part of the opening taught classes on design, social theory and activism.

“What’s interesting is that he has developed on two fronts,” notes the MFA’s Greene. “He has bent his creative talent to the collective, and we’ve also seen him develop this exquisite collection of drawings in his own style.”

Pruitt’s next big project may bring him closer than ever to his youthful dream of filling books with superhero illustrations of his own. This fall, he started working closely with his friend, author Mat Johnson, an award-winning novelist and UH creative writing professor, on a graphic novel. Johnson, who worked as a comic book writer before garnering broader literary acclaim, describes it as a “high-art version of a comic book.” The story will follow an African-American heroine, and the collaborators plan to distribute the book via the Internet and eventually stage a gallery show reproducing Pruitt’s original art.

Johnson, who comes from a mixed-race background and has studied African-American literature, is keenly attuned to racial issues. To his mind, Pruitt finds ways to celebrate black culture without necessarily reopening old wounds. “What’s so cool about Pruitt’s work,” says Johnson, “is that it imagines an alternate future you’ve never really seen before.”

For Pruitt, the novel also offers yet another chance to use his extraordinary talent to spark a provocative and useful dialogue. “I’m excited about the potential,” he says. “It’s kind of limiting to me if the work is just two-dimensional and stays on the wall.”