Exhibit explores Suriname and art of naming nature

“James Prosek: Suriname” opened at the Whitney Humanities Center on Monday; it will be up until June 24.
“James Prosek: Suriname” opened at the Whitney Humanities Center on Monday; it will be up until June 24. Photo by Grey Grissom.

A new exhibition in the Gallery at the Whitney Humanities Center shows the interdisciplinary qualities of nature, reflecting how philosophy and art coexist with science, explained Richard Prum, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

“James Prosek: Suriname,” which opened at the Center yesterday, features watercolors and specimens prepared by James Prosek ’97, who traveled to the South American nation last spring as part of a biological expedition sponsored by the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The gallery includes roughly 20 pieces painted on a parchment paper background, spaced evenly around the room with no individual descriptions or placards. A glass case against one wall contains specimens of birds and fish from the Suriname expedition on loan from the Peabody, some of which were prepared on-site by Prosek himself, according to a sign in the gallery.

Prosek was asked to display the art from his expedition at the Center by Maria Rosa Menocal, who is the director of the center. Menocal said that she believed Prosek’s work would complement this year’s Shulman Seminar, taught by philosophy professor Jonathan Gilmore and Prum on the subject of the interface between beauty and evolutionary biology.

Many of the questions addressed by the seminar, such as those concerning the nomenclature of nature, line up with Prosek’s “personal inquiries,” Prosek said.

“I went to Suriname because I was interested in exploring questions about the collection and naming of organisms,” he added. “Collection can be about possession and control, and in some ways I intend to offer a critique of museums and other institutions that are the force behind acquiring organisms.”

The exhibition serves as a prelude to a panel discussion that will take place on April 15 on the same topic. Two of the speakers at the panel, Professors Michael Donoghue and Jacques Gauthier, will discuss PhyloCode, a recently developed system of phylogenetic nomenclature that has heavily influenced Prosek’s work, Prosek said.

“The Linnaean system of taxonomy that everyone uses was invented before Darwin’s time and treats nature as static,” Prosek explained. “I think that nature is more fluid than that, so I try to reflect the values of PhyloCode in my artwork.”

The debate over ownership of nature extends not only to the content of Prosek’s artwork, but also to his artistic style. Many of the subjects of the watercolors are intentionally distorted based on principles of anamorphism, Michael Anderson, one of Prosek’s colleagues at the Peabody said. Prosek’s use of anamorphism is meant to show that whenever humans attempt to define or represent nature, there will always be a distortion, a sign at the exhibition explained.

James Prosek published his first book, “Trout: An Illustrated History,” while he was a junior at Yale. “James Prosek: Suriname” will be up through June 24.

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