James Prosek is primarily known for his faithfully rendered watercolor paintings of birds and fish. In this exhibition, he has ventured into new mediums and formats to expand the conceptual underpinnings of his work. Paintings in oil on wall-mounted wooden boxes depict bird specimens as if they were just pulled from a collection drawer. And actual taxidermic birds, cleaned and prepared by the artist, are present- ed as works of art in Plexiglas boxes supported by metal posts.
The murals of birds shown in silhouette that confront the viewer at the start and close of James Prosek’s exhibition may seem familiar. The images are adapted from the endpapers Roger Tory Peterson created in 1934 for his A Field Guide to the Birds.1 In Peterson’s Guide, a variety of birds in black and white are shown perched in trees and in flight. A numbered key names each species, and presumably helps us to identify birds in the real world by their profiles.
In Prosek’s version, painted in large-scale directly on the wall, the key is gone and we are left to examine the numbered silhouettes devoid of reference. Without the exercise of going from key to image, or image to key, we are in the less comfort- able position of not knowing. While the endpapers in Peterson’s Field Guide frame the contents of his book—a book about the identification and naming of birds—the murals in Prosek’s exhibition frame a body of work imbued with mystery, and the potential inherent in letting go of names.
Jessica Hough, Director Mills College Art Museum
Top image: James Prosek: Life & Death–A Visual Taxonomy