*Enlarge slideshow to full screen to see uncropped photos.
As a published author and successful painter, James Prosek has more tools than most artists for communicating what he sees in nature. But he’s dissatisfied. Mostly with Linnaeus and his eponymous system for naming the natural world. (Remember? Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order….)
Prosek says this dissatisfaction began when he was a teenager, working on his first book on the trout of North America.
For that book, he only painted a fish if it had a species name. For his second book on the trout of Europe, Asia and North Africa, he had to change his approach. He was seeing diverse trout in the places he visited, but biologists hadn’t extensively explored these regions, so most of the fish were lumped under one species name–Salmo trutta, or brown trout.
“It was damaging, I thought, to carry all this beautiful diversity under one name. I started to question the whole idea of putting nature into categories, and how we communicate nature through names,” Prosek says. “I felt that if I just painted an individual fish that I saw from a particular location, then that was something real, and that was something true. The [Linnean] heirarchy of ranks didn’t seem necessary. I began to realize there are no lines between things in nature–we draw the lines.”
In a new exhibition of his work, James Prosek: Un-Natural History
, Prosek says he’s continuing to explore different ways of communicating what he sees in nature, and examining how we name and order the natural world.
Of ‘Flying Fox…’ (pictured above) he says “the stuff that we can imagine is almost as real and amazing as what exists in nature.” The shotgun represents the first step in biological naming. Before we can name something, it has to be captured and killed–collected. (A practice, he adds, that he has no problem with.) An actual taxidermied version of a fox with wings lies curled up on a pedestal in the exhibition. The dead animal is “proof,” Prosek says, of its existence.
Other exhibition works include a life-size painting of an Atlantic sailfish, pictured below. (It’s over 7 feet across.) For this (and other ocean fish Prosek is currently painting) he mixed different minerals including ground mica in with the paint to get a living sheen.
See more images below or check out Prosek’s paintings in person at Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art
. The exhibition James Prosek: Un-Natural History
runs through December 21, 2011. (All works courtesy of the artist and Waqas Wajahat, New York, unless otherwise noted.)
Want more still? Check out this Science Friday video from last October. Prosek joined us to talk about Eels
(and to sample some tasty smoked eel.)