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Fish mysteries


James Prosek‘s painted fish tales at Fleisher-Ollman Gallery are not about “the one that got away.” Prosek’s watercolor paintings are about the ones that are coming, the fishy “what-ifs” that are not real but figments of an imaginative mind at play with issues of ecology and the infringement of man on the natural world.

Thus, for example, the Connecticut artist, who is also a writer, naturalist, and trout fishing enthusiast with several books to his name, contemplates a woodpecker and thinks “What if nature began through selection to mimic industry.” Then he paints the woodpecker with a drill for a beak and tail feathers like pointed shards from a tape measure, file and other carpentry tools. The drawing is funny, but it’s also a beauty of construction with great sorrowful undertones of worry for the species. (right is the woodpecker fantasy)

In the case of the kingfisher bird, Prosek muses “Where did he fly to when he bit off more than he could chew?” Then he paints the bird with a fish body and tail. (top image) Whimsy wins the day here but it’s a work whose afterglow stays, its ideas about nature squeezing itself into unnatural responses in order to stay viable clearly based on themes in play in the world.

Prosek’s large and small paintings are illustrational (he’s been called the Audubon of fish). But unlike Audubon, these works have annotations at the bottom, pencilled-in questions and musings which, while not strident seem urgent both for the artist who wrote them — and for the viewer who reads them.

Gallerist John Ollman, who’s showing Prosek’s works for the first time, told me that the artist was an English major and that he has published seven books on fish. He writes for the NY Times and is currently working on a project for National Geographic that involves a study of eels, a species being dangerously over-harvested due to demand for them in Japan and elsewhere. Prosek’s got a couple of abstract drawings in the show that are inspired by his eel project. The paintings are made by inking the body of an eel and pressing it onto the paper, apparently a traditional technique according to Ollman.

Prosek, 30, is a latter day Thoreau who lives in a rehabbed one-room schoolhouse on the same street in Connecticut where he grew up. See his website for more on him. His books are not only just about fish but they’re about his philsophy of life — a kind of life is fishing and fishing is life Zen take on things. In 2004, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a feature story on Prosek that I happened to hear. The story was captivating and I remember being jealous of the artist’s apparent ability to simplify his life and focus his energy on his ancient subjects (fish) and still stay connected to the contemporary world. (He gives talks, has a website, shows his art in galleries and his books have an avid following.) Here’s the NPR link. You can listen to the story or read an abstract that includes photos of the artist, his house and his art.

Ollman said that the show’s opening was attended by lots of fishing enthusiasts — in regalia — who brought in their own copies of the artist’s books for him to sign. While Prosek was in Philadelphia, Ollman said, he was excited that there were two fish stories going on right here. First was the story of Helis, the wandering beluga whale who swam right up the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers apparently feeding on the shad population. Second was the one about the snake-headed ambulatory fish that crawled out of a pond in Franklin Park.

I love the guy’s single-minded-ness. The show’s up through June 4.