Art Sales 2.0 IRL: A Book of Rob Pruitt’s eBay Flea Market
“Humanity and nature, not separate, are in this world together […] nothing was lost when everything was given away” – John Cage
“The elements of a new life should already be in formation among us — in the realm of culture — and it’s up to us to draw on them to liven up the debate.” – Asger Jorn
Is Rob Pruitt an artist or a salesman — and if the latter, what is it that he’s selling? A new book from Italian publisher Bruno, Rob Pruitt’s eBay Flea Market: Year 1, describes itself as Pruitt’s “unconventional autobiography.” Beyond being a catalog of cultural detritus cum-artist’s-book, this strange paperback might make one wonder, What about this is Art? And why would the publisher waste time and money to make this thing? It looks pretty crappy (seemingly on purpose), as it’s literally nothing more than an eBay item inventory in print, enfolded by a glossy cover bearing a blurry, incidental image. But a good sleuth will always search through the trash. You can find out a lot about somebody by looking there; and a flea market can also be a good place to learn about someone’s life, based on maybe what it was once like.
With this in mind — and eBay often being a lot like a kind of digital bazaar — Pruitt is selling a kind of story, one that has also been staged as an actual flea market installation or performance all over the place. In fact, that’s how this all started. Pruitt began his flea markets as his own sort of Happenings way back in 1999 in NYC. They’ve been held art galleries, art fairs, museums, and sometimes businesses. He and his friends began by exhibiting and selling pretty much whatever they wanted, from art to the stuff they had laying around their apartments. No wonder. His book is a jumble of quotidian personal objects in the most perplexing of situations: a confluence of consumer products, some of which are considered fine art or pop culture relics in the space of an online flea market. Funnily enough, the images of each object for sale are set against a generic cloud backdrop, either that or, for items sold during the months of November or December, one of that and falling snowflakes — to evoke what any merchant of consumer goods would, you guessed it, The Holidays.
As an autobiography, the book is unconventional; it says almost nothing strictly personal about Pruitt. It’s at first glance a mishmash of nonessentials: a “POWER Brass Paperweight CROWN *Pop *Art *Sculpture” is listed as having “plenty of mass to hold down ALL of your papers!” It comes with the caveat “*Warning this paperweight can be used as Brass Knuckles if things get a little dicey.” The book goes from Valentine’s Day tchotchkes to a MoMA toilet brush in a page or two. Really, what the hell am I even looking at here?
I haven’t seen a book like this since having been introduced to the once impossible-to-find An Anecdoted Topography of Chance (Atlas Arkhive, 1966), by Daniel Spoerri. That book essentially documents (ad absurdum) a moment in time and all the things on or in the author’s desk in that moment. Like Spoerri’s insane book, Pruitt’s is so absurd — so mind-blowingly packed with surprising objects, their juxtapositions and descriptions and the misfit spirit that’s still somehow hard to come by — it’s laugh-out-loud funny and worthy of any well-made book to be found in the catalogues of DAP. That is also to say, with a backhanded compliment, that the book is a piece of junk. The aforementioned cover image, one of a little old smiling, wooden, armless doll with a mustache, is blurry and set on the backdrop of cloudy heavens, and the pages, sans-pagination, are no different from what can be found on Pruitt’s actual eBay page, making the book essentially just here for posterity, proof of life, or at best a gag (my bet).
What I know of Pruitt’s art is that it’s all this surprising and unconventional; he seems uninterested in art trends and has a great sense of humor. “Is this guy French?” someone asked me, going on to comment that past inventive French artists and writers seem to have been bent on scatology — from François Rabelais to Alfred Jarry to Marcel Duchamp — of the same lineage. He’s not writing about crap per se, just presenting things — crap and some higher art stuff — with no discernable hierarchical importance at all. Pruitt seems to be along this lineage, though he perhaps doesn’t exactly belong to it. To me, Pruitt and his sense of abandon may be in a similar trajectory as a thinker, or better, a prankster, is more Marx Brothers than those artists. Pruitt takes some of what he’s doing just a little further, perhaps the way that Andy Warhol did, with art embracing and involving itself in consumer culture and materialism in order to motivate or further a different kind of thinking.
Duchamp, Warhol, or even Tony Smith all realized that art is happening in time immemorial and with all things, and what they made and talked about had this in mind. That’s how I think one can appreciate this book. To these people, and now to Pruitt, there’s “a reality there,” as Smith said, “which had not had any expression in art.” What’s art? Anything. Pruitt’s own pants, sold for $.99 this month online; maybe, as his book evinces, almost anything with a panda bear or a heart on it. Pruitt presents, of all things, fuchsine grapes, which are poisonous if eaten — and a fake apple that he gives the hilarious appellation “Magritte-esque”!
The unbelievable effect of this book is that in its utter pointlessness and overwhelming cacophony it becomes something like a digital arcade, such as those within which Walter Benjamin found reason to both protest and to admire the contemporary. Beyond how strange the book is describing it outside of art historical and theoretical terms is surprisingly difficult. “It’s a catalogue, very spare in often ironic or witty description, with no other literature or even an introduction, made up of all this guy’s eBay items.” This kind of thing usually begs the question of why, what for? Or else the statement, like it or not, “how dumb.” The former of which isn’t far off at all, in the best way possible.
Pruitt, Rob. Rob Pruitt’s eBay Flea Market: Year 1. Tommaso Speretta (ed.) (Venice, Italy: bruno, 2015). ISBN-13: 978-8899058098. 296 pages, $32