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Fish Without a Home

James Prosek rethinks natural history at Reynolds Gallery.



After more than half a lifetime of circling the globe in search of a coldwater stream to fish, James Prosek, 34, is redefining the underwater world he knows all too well.

“Like DA¬rer, have you ever seen his rhinoceros?” Prosek asks. He's talking about his upcoming show, “Real and Imagined,” at Reynolds Gallery. “He drew one before he had ever seen one.”

Prosek has always had an interest in natural history. Growing up in Connecticut, he began fishing when he was 9, and began painting trout as a teenager. He published his first book, “Trout, An Illustrated History,” in 1996 while a student at Yale University.  He has since gone on to publish eight other illustrated books and won a Peabody Award for his documentary on 17th-century author and fisherman Izaak Walton and his book “The Compleat Angler.”

“I am interested in reinterpreting the tradition by doing something contemporary.  Our history with nature is changing all the time. Now it is about depicting things that are disappearing,” Prosek says. “Why do we feel the need to name them, to collect them, is it a relevant exercise in today's world?”

His work features a series of fish, either true portraits or manifested realities that are both painted with the authority of natural history.

“The goal is not to draw them as accurately as possible, but to capture their essence,” he says. He says of the painted fish that come from a memory that has caught and released more than 3,000 trout. “The paintings aren't so much the fish but my interpretation of the fish.”

These fish are represented singularly away from their natural perspective beneath the water. They float on the page accompanied only by two other natural objects from their environment. Prosek portrays his subjects on tea-stained paper in order to activate the scene. “Things don't exist on their own. There is always kind of a give and take between them,” he says of these groupings.

Interpretations derive from his personal questions about taxonomy, or the practice and science of classification. “Like the parrotfish,” he says, “creatures become their names in protest as we are trying to pin them down in our minds.” The name is not an identity as it is a means of control by the viewer.

“The idea behind naming things in nature, how we name them, why do we name them — it is in effect how we visually try to order nature,” he says.  “There was a time, in the 18th century and before, when we knew less about the world, our imaginations were more active and filled in the blanks,” Prosek says. “I guess I am lamenting for a time when we knew less.”

“Real and Imagined” opens Nov. 6 at the Reynolds Gallery at 1514 W. Main St. For information, call 355-6553 or go to


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