Scientist sketches Suriname

Birds with elongated bodies and half-closed eyes writhing in pain often inhabit the paintings of James Prosek ’97. But Prosek is no sadist — at least, not that we know of. Rather, he is a biological researcher-cum-artist whose watercolor paintings deliberately distort the specimens he collects and observes on his expeditions. A series of paintings Prosek made on a recent trip to Suriname are now on view at the Gallery at the Whitney in the aptly named show “James Prosek: Suriname.”

A placard at the front of the exhibition explains Prosek’s intention to convey the futility of depicting nature in art. Understanding his vision for the exhibition is necessary in order to appreciate the work. Without it, the paintings come across as peculiar sketches with little aesthetic quality to them.

Prosek’s concept is well executed; the paintings look as though the artist misjudged the proper scale of his subjects. The thin, tea-stained paper on which the paintings are done causes them to look too much like sketches and not enough like paintings.

The pieces are not named but rather are identified by small black numbers. Even when placed in white frames and hung on the walls of the gallery, the paintings still look out of place. Unlike traditional art exhibitions, “Suriname” appears to be composed of a field scientist’s sketchbook that has been dismantled and put on display.

In stripping the paintings of their art-like qualities, Prosek succeeds in his goal. The awkwardness of the paintings reflects the inherent contradiction of the task of translating nature onto paper. Ultimately, he argues that any human interaction with nature automatically disfigures it.

Nowhere is this message more apparent than in the taxidermy display, lent by the Peabody Museum for the exhibition. The cotton ball eyes of the stuffed specimens with stiffened feathers on the shelves, arranged in a too-orderly manner, jump out as tangible, three-dimensional examples of Prosek’s haunting paintings, most notably an image labeled only with the number 14.

The stiffness of the taxidermic birds on display mirrors the twisted body, drawn claws and missing eyes of the white bellbird depicted in painting 14. The words “shot by me” penciled underneath the image are in opposition to the tags attached to the stuffed birds, each of which lists identifying facts about each bird in neat script. The taxidermy display placed alongside the paintings, each depicting birds with stiff tail feathers protruding at unnatural angles, highlights the artificiality of both works. The stuffed birds eliminate any semblance of life or emotion in their representation, and the distorted paintings eliminate the meticulous accuracy of a biological researcher.

Prosek refuses to reconcile two types of representations of nature, one scientific and the other artistic. Instead, he chooses to highlight the flaws of both. He fails to commit to one approach and so his work embodies the dilemma he tries to convey: representing the grandiosity of nature in one pencil drawing or watercolor painting.

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