CPNAS - Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences
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James Prosek: Ocean Fishes and Taxonomy

June 28, 2012 - September 20, 2012

National Academy of Sciences, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C.

Photo ID required. No charge. No appointment needed.

Ocean Fishes

Working in the tradition of naturalists such as John James Audubon and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, James Prosek reminds us of the role visual representation plays in shaping our perceptions of the natural world. He uses direct observation and imagination to render the subtle colors and forms of ocean fishes often hidden from our view beneath the water’s surface. Prosek challenges us to think critically about representation and what we see. He writes,

I am not painting fish to represent a species in a field guide; I am painting an individual fish that I had a personal experience with, that I saw in the water and on the deck of a boat, in all of its living colors, with its mirror sheen reflecting the world around it. I am part of my paintings—if I see my own reflection in the eye of the fish, or a bit of my turquoise windbreaker on the sides, I will paint that in—I see each one as a self-portrait.


The beauty and limitations of taxonomy and classification systems are driving ideas in James Prosek’s work. His imagined objects – both elegant and whimsical – exist outside the world of known taxonomy to remind us that the beauty and diversity of the natural world cannot be harnessed by any one system. Prosek writes,

What’s in a name? Everything. That's because the way we name and impose order on nature shapes the way we perceive and treat it. If unnamed and unrecognized, animals and plants are ignored. They won’t be lobbied for under legislation such as the Endangered Species Act and could vanish before we even begin to understand the implications of their loss.

About the Artist

Artist and naturalist James Prosek has spent his life observing and documenting nature. His work has been the subject of museum exhibitions at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT and the Nouveau Musee National, Monaco, among others. A major survey exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art is scheduled for 2013. He lives and works in rural Connecticut.

Visit James Prosek's website

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