Widely known for more than half a dozen exquisitely illustrated books on trout, eels, and other fish and wildlife, James Prosek has more recently emerged as an adventurous contemporary artist. This development unites his interest in the tradition of rendering from nature with a turn toward the inner world of fantasy. The progeny of this crossbreeding are hybrid creatures: fish-and-bird, fish-and-human, and, more recently, bird-and-household object, such as pencils and drill bits. Prosek’s work has also vastly increased in size as the nature of his subjects has expanded; one monumental watercolor of a sailfish with scarlet macaw’s wing in place of its dorsal fin, now in the collection of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, measures eleven feet long.
Prosek’s fascination with hybridity has a surrealist edge, but it also reflects a strand of the naturalist tradition that dates to its beginnings. It recalls a time, some five hundred years ago, when the vast diversity of the natural world began to infiltrate northern Europe in bits and pieces: pelts and skins and feathers brought back by adventurers and merchants from voyages around the globe. Trying to reconstitute these limp sheaths of unfamiliar creatures, artists used verbal and written reports from the travelers, along with healthy doses of imagination. The strange amalgams they dreamed into being — misshapen, ill-proportioned, and fancifully endowed — passed for authoritative versions, at least for a time.
In returning to this history, Prosek, in effect, grants himself permission to play God. He makes new creatures spring from his mind and brush, plausible in the seamless way he knits together their disparate parts. This act of genesis parallels Prosek’s interest in language as the device by which humans master their world. More specifically, Prosek relishes the slippage in language, the ambiguities, misnomers, and contradictions that reveal it as an artificial system mapped onto a world it seeks to render comprehensible. One body of Prosek’s work — carefully observed and precisely rendered Brook Trout and Striped Bass, Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies and Indian Paintbrush — conform to the existing classifications, lending them credence through faithful forms and accurate details. Painted on tea-stained paper with homemade paints enhanced by metallic pigments, these are celebrations of nature’s bounty by a skilled and committed naturalist. But his other body of work, equally ravishing and also based on careful observation, subverts this very system. Often inspired by the given names of fish and bird that suggest mergers of species, such as roosterfish, turtledove, and parrotfish, Prosek merely takes the implications to their logical extreme. His hybrids question what his naturalistic works affirm, presenting a vision of nature that defies our categories and exceeds language’s ability to contain it — a vision, that is, of the wonder that is reality and imagination united.
John B. Ravenal
Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts