Just days before American artist Rob Pruitt opened his Suicide Paintings exhibition at the Massimo De Carlo gallery in Central, news broke that pandas were no longer considered endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature – instead, they were upgraded to the category of “near threatened.”

It was interesting news for Pruitt, whose latest work is all about the famous black-and-white bears and how they have come to dominate the global imagination. Pandas may be rare in the wild, but they are ubiquitous in popular culture. Pruitt, who for more than 25 years has built a career as a post-conceptual artist, was eight years old when two giants pandas were gifted to the United States, after Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking visit to China. Pruitt quickly became fascinated with the animals and the budding artist began to draw them. “I begged my father to take me to the zoo during any free time we had, so that I could draw them again and again,” he says.

Before the pandas, the neighbour’s boxer dogs were Pruitt’s artistic muses, but they were quickly replaced by the exotic new creatures. “I was obsessed with them and couldn’t step outside of that,” he says. Pruitt became vegetarian when he was a teenager. “I feel quite sensitive to animals and irritated by how narcissistic humans are, that we believe we are superior,” he says. I’ve always felt quite aligned with pandas. There’s an interesting element of being a vegetarian, whereby you think about other lives and have respect for them.”

Obsessions and repeated themes aren’t unusual for Pruitt. After becoming infatuated with pandas, his attention was captured by the marine explorer, scientist and conservationist Jacques Cousteau’s aquatic documentaries. When he was just eight years old, Pruitt watched all of Cousteau’s movies, cementing his interest in animals and their habitat. More recently, he has been making sculptures of cats. “Like pandas, they are ubiquitous, but unlike pandas, they really are everywhere,” he quips, referring to the consumer culture that has popularised the symbol of the panda.

It was the idea of iconography that brought Pruitt back to his childhood obsession, prompting him to embark on a 17-year series of works that has culminated in Suicide Paintings. He compares the power of pandas to that of the Christian cross. “You see a crucifix and you know what it represents,” he says. “Whether or not you’re Christian, you know that Christ was a martyr who died for the sins of others and was resurrected.” For Pruitt, both symbols work in a similar way, by stirring up feelings of empathy or even guilt. “A good symbol stands for an idea that lots of people can relate to and be motivated by,” he says. “When you see a panda you should feel empathy – you should feel complicit in its predicament.  As with most endangered species, the demise of the panda is balanced on our need to consume, leading to the disappearance of natural habitats and poaching – and can be saved by our willingness to change,” he states.

But Pruitt isn’t setting out to critique consumerism – simply to explore the panda’s weight as an icon. “When I was a child we would pass time together as a family by going to the mall,” he says. “We didn’t have to buy things but we would look and discuss things together, making it a shared experience. I’m hardwired to think that shopping is nice because in my formative years that was how we shared love in our family. We aren’t corrupt because we buy things. Consumerism isn’t dirty.” He even sees a certain creativity in consumerism. “Look at how people dress or compose themselves – they’re thinking about the combination of lines and colour, creating something new to show off to friends, something to make them feel excited. It’s creative and it’s not that different to how I put together a painting. I’m not sure that shopping is that different to how artists go about making things.”

While the panda might be a potent icon for consumer culture, it’s not an obvious topic for contemporary art. “The panda is cute, where most people are looking for coolness or something edgy,” he says. He represents the panda in a range of different ways, from realism to cartoons, sometimes side-by-side without distinction. “When I first returned to the pandas, I was thinking about the anthropologist Jane Goodall and how she entered gorilla habitats, gently observing and establishing relationships,” he says. “It made me wonder what kind of pandas I could find in journalism, advertising and so on. I wanted to find all the [representations of] pandas and paint them. I wondered if I could make as many paintings as there were pandas in the wild. It was like a childish need to collect. It was like a game.” Pruitt sees no need to reconcile a cute cartoon with a stark, realistic portrait because he doesn’t consider them as different. In the mind’s eye, they are both pandas.

Pruitt titled the series Suicide Paintings when he realised just how limiting it could be.

“I know it’s a harsh title, but I’m not a poet and I don’t mind its severity,” he says. “It’s my direct response to painting those pandas for so many years. I felt fatigued. I was dependent on Google image searches and I wanted to find new tools for creating these works, away from searches like that,” he says. He had long battled with depression and social anxiety, and he eventually realised he needed to extract himself from situations that weren’t conducive to his mental health.

This realisation marked a turning point in his work. Initially, his paintings were monotone, but he gradually shifted to a brighter, smoother style with chromatic backgrounds. “I knew I could blend colours without looking at Google. I wanted to mark the passing of time, perhaps from morning to night or from summer to winter, which you can do with colour. It anchors the paintings in time, which I couldn’t do with just black and white,” he says. And while glitter has been used in the series from the start, seeing it on top of the coloured spectral gradients gives a look that Pruitt describes as “digital.”

Once he started using colour, Pruitt’s relationship with the work shifted. His paintings became portals through which he could escape the pressures of his life. “They started to look like doorways, to another space or world behind where they hang. Imagine extracting yourself from a bad place,” he says. “I felt like I could see one hanging on a wall and step into the painting, leaving behind that space.”

The passing of time is an important theme in Suicide Paintings – ironically titled for the role they have taken in Pruitt’s life, as well as for the passing of species that do become extinct, and to convey the truth of how everything is impermanent. Pandas might now be “near threatened,” after a 17 percent jump in their numbers, but even at 1,864 pandas living in the wild, they are not far away from the 1,600 mark that classified them as endangered. “I’m happy with how the project has progressed over the years, but the paintings aren’t really there to answer huge philosophical questions,” says Pruitt. “I just want to capture the beauty of a species going though this. We shouldn’t forget how fragile life and beauty is.”

Suicide Paintings runs at Massimo De Carlo until October 31, 2016. 3/F, Pedder Building, 12 Pedder Street, Central. Open Monday to Saturday, 10:30-19:00.