States of Nature

States of Nature

On my way into the Yale University Art Gallery, I was accosted by a pair of strangers. “You have to go to the top floor,” they said. “The exhibit there is amazing.” And on my way into that exhibit, I encountered a man quietly talking to himself or maybe to me, standing before a curious painting of a bird—Audubon-like in its naturalistic exactitude, except that the bird was also part fish. He said he’d visited this show seven times. “It’s simply the best.”

James Prosek: Art, Artifact, Artifice gathers Prosek’s own work; others’ work; artifacts from the art gallery; and objects and specimens from the Peabody Museum and smashes them together. In media ranging from graphite to watercolor to tapestry to pottery to sculpture, the natural world meets a fantastical one, as dutiful renditions of nature vie for attention with semi-natural interpretations, including taxidermy “hybrids”: a hooded merganser duck with a drill bit for a bill, light and dark squirrels with delicate wings sewn on. Diffuse with white light on white walls, the gallery space feels almost like the blank, bright background of a microscope slide, inviting not just a close creative eye but a scientific one as well.

As it happens, Prosek, a Yale alum, is a naturalist and conservationist in addition to being an artist. His drawings are precise yet whimsical, lovingly illustrated as if they were made in a field notebook. In the one the seventh-time visitor was admiring, a macaw meets a fish—an ornithological and ichthyological wonder. It’s not far from the aforementioned winged squirrels, whose hybrid forms also pull from nature. In other cases, Prosek’s taxidermied sculptures blend up the natural and the civilizational. In Industrial Evolution, housed inside a glass cube with vegetation and plenty of wood chips, a beaver has a chainsaw for a tail, and believe it or not, the effect is subtle. The quiet playfulness of works like these keeps the audience attentive to detail, searching for sly winks even in unlikely corners.

Prosek’s work extends both beyond and deeper into representation, from abstract marks in pencil or paint—controversially, in at least one example, he used dead eels like stamps to make those marks—to lovingly detailed fish. Non-natural artifacts help to further collapse the distance between art and artifice. Vases and baskets intermingle with nests. An African bird statue curves in dialogue with a variety of neighboring antlers. A silk tapestry converses with botanical drawings of similar flowers. A human-bird hybrid lies across from bird-drill hybrids. Lines are very deliberately blurred, and one’s desire to categorize fades as the exhibition unfolds, creating a chaotic and packed vision of a world beyond classification.

Prosek is adept at drawing attention to his chosen categories and at the same time obliterating the need to see them; his art flows effortlessly into artifact, artifice and back again. The exhibition’s mesmerizing showstopper Bird Spectrum arranges hundreds of bird specimens from the Peabody to form a rainbow gradient, passing through oranges, yellows, greens and blues to get from vermillion on the left to obsidian on the right. Echoing the framework of the whole show, the work is both natural and artificial, incorporating artifacts of nature preserved by civilization and arranged via an obvious artistic logic. Step close and engage with amazing avian detail, or take several steps back to enjoy a cohesive blast of colors.

It bears noting that Prosek, in a rare move, served as both artist and curator, such that the show can in some sense be viewed holistically as a single artistic vision. As in Bird Spectrum, the ability to view each individual part and understand it as a piece of a singular creative effort helps further Prosek’s mission of blurring the conceptual lines in play. Art, artifact and artifice can be organic, or they can be inorganic, or they can be both at the same time. Likewise, rigid definitions of the terms of engagement are both essential and beside the point.

It’s probably worth another trip or seven.

James Prosek: Art, Artifact, Artifice
Yale University Art Gallery – 1111 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun 11am-5pm through June 7
(203) 432-0601…

Written by Allison Hadley. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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