Curiouser and Curiouser: The Work of Nathan Prouty

Mary Drach McInnes

How do I begin to describe or dissemble Nathan Prouty’s sculptures? When I look at them, I feel as if I have fallen down the rabbit hole—and like Alice, I find myself encountering curious objects and zany situations. And, like an Alice in a wonderland of hallucinatory images, I try to make the individual elements of the work coalesce, to add up. How do I sum up a squat boxlike base with an overlay of candy-apple red Plexiglas? And what does this base hold but what seems to be the yellow streamlined hood of a miniaturized 1934 Chrysler De Soto? And this model is topped by a woven rectangle of what seems to be packing material. And from this material springs a preposterous length of airborne fishing rod. And at the end of this line hangs—precariously—a hollowed crater that is textured and vivid green. Everything is awry. Even this sculpture’s name is daft: "Balloonpopper Winthrop: For Honor and Glory". It is a screwball comedy of sculptural form supported by an eclectic mix of materials: earthenware, glaze, luster, wood, Plexiglas, glitter, paint, lacquer. All of this “bling” is crammed into a tiny package—the size of our hand. What we have is a madcap, postmodern curio. “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change,” says Alice.

Since his education at Alfred’s ceramic program, Nathan Prouty has been exploring the poetic potential of the uncanny.[i] Like the surrealists of the 1930s, Prouty constructs contemporary objects that combine the known with the unknown. In a recent statement, he discusses the expressive possibilities that lie between these opposing elements:
Connections between the curious and the familiar offer endless opportunities for exploration. The display of a few dissimilar objects sets the stage: conflict, dialogue, action, and emotion. Contrast leads to comparison; meaning occurs through difference[ii]

In Prouty’s work, disparate—yet playful—components merge and collide. The aggregate forms and stacked layers that comprise his work speak to our surplus of goods. Like the surrealists, this young artist is responding to the overabundance of our commodity culture and seeks to divert the normal functions of objects. In his 1936 essay on the “Crisis of the Object,” the movement’s leader André Breton wrote that surrealist objects . . .

". . . are of a kind calculated primarily to raise the interdict resulting from the stultifying proliferation of those objects that impinge on our senses every day and attempt to persuade us that anything that might exist independently of these mundane objects must be illusory."[iii]

Surrealist objects aim to disrupt our daily habits, to throw our routine into doubt and to become sources of wonder. In a similar manner, Nathan Prouty seduces us --through wit and humor -- to reposition ourselves in relation to these small, disparate works and to the world at large.

[i] In the 1930s, the surrealists explored the psychological potential of objecthood. As in other areas of their research, these artists used Freudian concepts and inverted them to maximize their expressive ability. The German term, unheimlich—generally translated as the uncanny—became a principle concept for the surrealists. The uncanny evokes a sense of anxiety and unease. The use of the uncanny, in combination with its complementary notion of the familiar, was a common strategy for this avant-garde group.

[ii] Nathan Prouty, “Artist Statement,” 2010.

[iii] André Breton, “Crisis of the Object,” quoted in Briony Fer, David Batchelor, and Paul Wood, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars (New Haven: Yale U P, 1993), 223.