Please note that partial proceeds from this lot are intended to benefit Oceana.
In James Prosek’s Tarpon, a large, glistening silver fish hovers above a crisp bright fuchsia conch shell and a delicate reddish pink bougainvillea. The tarpon, deliberately placed at the top of the page with the two elements beneath it, is the crowning element in this oceanic trilogy. The tarpon is an iconic saltwater sport fish, coveted by fly fishermen who search for them off of skiffs that are poled over long flat stretches of tropical water. They are particularly renowned in the Florida Keys and other parts of Florida where fishing for them is culturally and economically important. When hooked, they are vigorous and relentless fighters, often jumping several times when hooked. The conch shell and bougainvillea are found in the same habitat of the migratory tarpon and are chosen by the artist for the things they accentuate, color or form, in the main element, the fish.
Prosek created Tarpon by staining a large sheet of watercolor paper with tea, a method he gleaned from looking at South Asian miniatures. Taking a cue from Audubon, who was experimental with his use of media, Prosek painted the three elements using watercolor (which he oftentimes makes himself) gouache, acrylic paint, colored pencil, graphite and a slurry he mixed with powdered mica that gives the fish a lustrous sheen.
Tarpon belongs to Prosek’s Ocean Fishes series, which the artist has been exploring since 2009. The works in this series are not mere representational pictures of fish, rather, each is a record of an intimate encounter with an individual fish of a certain species. In Tarpon, the fish comes from the Key West region of Florida. Prosek, who treasured field guides as a child but is now suspicious of their neatness, wants to expose how they oversimplify nature to allow people to navigate its diversity. This kind of field guide presentation of nature—distilling every species to a single image—gives a false impression of nature's abundant diversity. Nuance of color, form and personality are left out, and necessarily so. Prosek acknowledges the usefulness of such guides but doesn't want people to rest on them as a real representations of nature. In Tarpon rather than painting a fish small, as an illustration for a book, he portrays it life size. The tarpon is not meant to be an idealized version of a species, but an individual.
"Representing each species with just one image does an injustice to the beauty and diversity of nature. Can you imagine the outcry if we had a field guide of primates and Homo sapiens was represented by a single image? Every fish is an individual, just like we are," Prosek says. In Tarpon, as in the Ocean Fishes series, every fish painting is based on an individual that the artist traveled to see around the world. He shows their personal markings and scars, "the residue of their lives in the ocean." Further, Prosek adds, "They are not only pictures of individual fish, but self-portraits of personal experiences with these fish. I don't leave out my presence as an observer. If I see my reflection in the fish, a hint of green from my rain jacket, or my reflection in their eye, I paint that in. This is because you can never take humans out of the equation. These are not images of nature, they are interpretations of nature, nature processed by the human mind. I am also trying to capture the ineffable, the fleeting colors of fish that fade soon after they are taken from the water."
James Prosek is an artist, writer and naturalist who makes commentaries on the human relationship to the natural world. A common theme of his work is a critique of how and why we name and order nature. He examines what changes in the mind when we join words to the world, as well as how our perceptions of nature change when we impose our grids and structures—whether they be dams, roads, language, borders between public and private lands, or latitude and longitude lines. The juxtaposition of the fish, the conch shell and the bougainvillea in Tarpon calls into question how the way we order objects shapes our perceptions of them—in the vein of institutional critique artists like Mark Dion and Fred Wilson. These orders expose our prejudices and priorities—why is the fish on top and not the shell? In Tarpon, Prosek, as in other bodies of work, creates his own taxonomy, so to speak, or system of classifying objects, that is personal and one that cannot be judged scientifically.