Fish Out of Water
James Prosek's Latest Works
James Prosek is a local boy who blossomed from child prodigy—at seven he painted exquisite birds—into the accomplished naturalist/artist/author he is today at 36. Currently, his work includes spoofs of nature and fanciful hybrids—all creatures of Prosek’s imagination—each rooted in some way to the natural world; each carrying a tart message as well.
For instance, take the startling image of Prosek’s Parrotfishe. Like Pegasus, the winged horse, and the minotaur, half-man, half-bull, of ancient Greek mythology, this vibrantly colored creature has the head and thorax of a blue-plumed parrot and the posterior of a parrotfish actually found in tropical coral reefs. Astonishingly lifelike, caught in gliding motion, the hybrid Parrotfishe wears an insignia on its tail, copied from a Maori tattoo Prosek observed while on an expedition to New Zealand to research Eels, his tenth book, published last year.
“The tattoo is decoration but also a statement about how we borrow our artistic forms from nature,” Prosek explains. “The Maori tattoos are swirls and geometric shapes that are patterned on the emerging fern spiral or shell.” At the bottom of the picture are two speckled eggs and Prosek’s hand-written notes, which he says are imaginative musings, some only half-legible, by intent.
Another painting shows a white bird, perched on the twig of a flowering bush, about to crack a hard-shelled nut with its short, curved beak. In appearance, it’s reminiscent of the cockatoo. But in Prosek’s conception, it’s a “cock-a-tool,” its signature crest fitted out with hand tools like a Swiss Army knife—saw, Phillips screwdriver, scissors, can opener, knife—in lieu of a feather headdress. “Efficient at most simple carpentry jobs,” says the hand-written note below the picture. “Bird painted from life … only known specimen.”
Prosek offers an explanation: “The idea being that humans only care about or conserve nature that is useful to them, so these creatures have evolved to mimic human industry in order to be useful and survive. The works are supposed to cause a friction in the brain between the real and the imagined.”
“Cockatool” and “Parrotfishe” were painted in 2008, before Prosek joined an expedition to a remote jungle in Suriname sponsored by Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History to collect bird specimens for its world-class collection. That trip coalesced many thoughts Prosek has had since childhood about how nature is named and ordered—a subject he will cover in his 11th book, now a work in progress.
Capturing exotic birds by day, some new to science, and painting them by night with a headlamp in a makeshift camp, Prosek pondered the explorers of the 18th century who inspired Carl Linnaeus to formulate a system for naming nature—the Linnaean taxonomy still in use today—as they returned from far-off voyages with never-before-seen specimens.
In 1749, Linnaeus heard of sightings of a mermaid—half-woman, half-fish—and he urged the Swedish Academy of Science to launch an official hunt and “catch this animal alive or preserve it in spirits,” Prosek says. In honor of Linnaeus, whose birth date he shares, Prosek is including in the show a mermaid who is half-eel and half–Japanese Geisha, as well as birds whose fate it was to be both painted and eaten by Prosek and his companions on the Suriname frontier, in the manner of John James Audubon.
Speaking of Audubon, Prosek’s left-handed draftsmanship is so skillful that the uninitiated may mistake his artful creations for the real thing. “Of course they’re fanciful. But then again, they could exist,” he says good-humoredly. “What is truth? What’s the difference?”
“James Prosek: Un-Natural History” will be on view at the Bellarmine Museum of Fairfield University from October 21 through December 21. The 20-or-so paintings promise to be whimsical, colorful, goofy, insightful, provocative, and beautiful, all at once, and fun for all ages.