James Prosek: Life & Death–A Visual Taxonomy

September 16, 2007–June 8, 2008
Exhibition Reception: September 16, 2007; 3 to 5 pm

The latest work of Connecticut artist James Prosek will debut at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum on September 16, 2007. The timely exhibition falls during the 300th anniversary year of the birth of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, the system of naming nature still in use today.

Prosek explains, “Life & Death: A Visual Taxonomy is in part a celebration and examination of Linnaeus’s system.” Coincidentally, Prosek and Linnaeus share the same birthday, May 23.

The exhibition, curated by Aldrich director Harry Philbrick, comes into focus around birds and is comprised of four main bodies of work. These works depict over two dozen species of birds–the surf scoter, Gambel’s quail, black billed magpie, and cinnamon teal, to name a few–and create a new visual taxonomy offering a fresh look at the practice of natural history painting. In his exhibition Prosek has replaced the names of birds with an alternate taxonomy based on geometric lines and shapes.

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Untitled (Montezuma Quail, Arizona), 2007

Untitled (Oldsquaw), 2007

Elegant floor-to-ceiling wall paintings that directly reference an illustration from Roger Tory Peterson’s original bird watching guide wallpaper two gallery walls and serve to introduce and conclude the exhibition.

Several paintings of various shapes, sizes, and materials meticulously depict faithfully-rendered birds–some hovering in abstract environments; some carefully positioned and reproduced neatly as they might be found in a specimen drawer in a laboratory or natural history museum; some on circular canvases that reference the way in which scientific tools crop the world in a circular viewfinder, like a microscope, binocular, telescope, or hunting rifle.

Prosek also paints on hand-built pristine gessoed and sanded boxes, not unlike the white of the steel specimen drawers in museum collections.  The boxes conceptually reference how man tries to fit nature into neat little containers through collecting, naming, classifying, and cataloging.

Finally, the exhibition includes a bevy of hand prepared–collected, skinned, and stuffed by the artist–study birds that will be neatly installed in small Plexiglas cases.  Each of the actual birds is arranged by color and pattern, not by name.

Life & Death: A Visual Taxonomy communicates James Prosek’s great love and respect for the natural world and offers viewers an opportunity to consider the birds’ real and metaphorical significance.

Artist, writer, activist, and Yale graduate James Prosek made his authorial debut at nineteen years of age with Trout: an Illustrated History (Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), which featured seventy of his watercolor paintings of the trout of North America. Prosek has shown his paintings of trout and other natural history subjects with the Gerald Peters Gallery, New York and Santa Fe; Meredith Long Gallery, Houston; as well as with Wajahat/Ingrao, New York, and the d.u.m.b.o. arts center, Brooklyn.  The exhibition at The Aldrich will be his first solo museum showing.  Prosek is a regular contributor to The New York Times and won a Peabody Award in 2003 for his documentary about traveling through England in the footsteps of Izaak Walton, the seventeenth-century author of The Compleat Angler.  He co-founded a conservation initiative called World Trout in 2004 with Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia clothing company, which raises money for coldwater habitat conservation through the sale of T-shirts featuring trout paintings.

This exhibition has been made possible in partnership with Waqas Wajahat.

Image: James Prosek, Untitled (Wood Duck) (detail), 2007