“O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!” says Horatio in William Shakespeare’s classic.
Hamlet famously replies, “…There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” —Perhaps there is also more than is generally dreamt of in our own contemporary approach to nature, suggests James Prosek, artist, author, and naturalist.
Those who appreciate the beauty of the natural world will not want to miss his new installation “Wondrous Strange” currently on exhibit at the New Britain Museum of American Art. Rarely is the work of a contemporary artist able to appeal on so many levels to so many different kinds of viewers. Rooted in a representational style, Prosek’s artwork is as accessible to the everyday museum-goer as it is to the art critic. Yet each piece reverberates with intensity, query, and discovery, linking the artist to a larger tradition of contemporary self-expression.
James Prosek burst on the public scene while a 19-year-old Yale undergraduate with his first book Trout: An Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), which featured seventy of his glowing watercolor paintings of North American trout. Since then, he has authored more than a dozen books, the most recent of which is the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
His paintings and sculptural pieces convey an appreciation for the work of early naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries while being firmly rooted in 21st century style and aesthetic. He has been described by New York Times reviewer Susan Hodara as having “reinvigorated the natural history tradition. . . ”
At its annual meeting last fall, Connecticut Fund for the Environment was pleased to host this talented artist-author as our guest speaker. Prosek was a fitting match for our environmental protection organization. His imaginative and detailed paintings and other works prompt concern that the world may be losing the animal and plant species that make up its biodiversity faster than humans can discover, let alone preserve. He encourages us to face head-on the irony of our simultaneous love affair with and war on nature.
At that meeting, Prosek discussed his work in general and his works exhibited at the New Britain Museum of American Art. We were privileged to share in a glimpse of his creative process. What emerged was a portrait of an artist who has many influences both past and contemporary and is fascinated by the challenges posed by humans’ attempts to define nature. Prosek’s art has been described as inviting viewers to “engage with realms that science cannot quantify or solve—those spaces in between fact and folklore, science and myth, real and imagined, wondrous and strange.” Sometimes we see through a glass darkly, suggests the artist, and the thing seen is defined as much by our expectations and word-making as it is by the thing itself. Some of his works are playful, whimsical as he pokes fun at our attempt to put nature in a box through classifying it. We are tripped up by our own science, he suggests, as DNA testing begins to unravel our preconceptions as to how species evolved and are genetically related. Yet, the stark beauty of nature remains the same, no matter how it is classified: the silver of the freshly caught trout (portrayed not just with paint, but with mica), the deep blue of the marlin, the varied shapes of silhouetted birds.
James Prosek is a naturalist in the grand tradition of Charles Darwin, and like him a world traveler, observer and journal-keeper. Like John James Audubon who painted his birds at life size, Prosek often paints nature at a large scale that emphasizes its size and beauty. His work Blue Marlin, 2011 is a 15-foot depiction of a nearly 700-pound creature caught in the Cape Verde Islands and forms an important focal point of the exhibit. Yet, insists this contemporary artist, it is not as much a detailed painting of a marlin as it is a representation of his own experience with that individual marlin. In that, he echoes earlier Expressionist and Abstractionist painters who insisted that art lay not in slavishly copying what was seen, but in conveying their response to the forms and hues of the world around them. At the same time, the appeal of Prosek’s artwork is partly its integrity; he documents his subjects with profound care and attention to the unique characteristics of each individual. The red crab looks as if it could crawl off the paper on which it is painted. His trout renditions appear poised to swim away.
“Wondrous Strange” is on exhibit until June 8 at The New Britain Museum of American Art. The museum is centrally located in the state and easily accessible from major highways I-84, I-91, and I-95. If you’ve never visited the museum before, viewing James Prosek’s installation could provide you with the inspiration you need.
Posted by Willow Ann Sirch, Development Writer at CFE