Upon first encountering the art of Carol Prusa, I wondered if I'd stumbled across work by the deranged offspring of a botanist and a biologist -- the artist's paintings are simultaneously floral and anatomical, if that makes any sense.
In one painting, for instance, a cascade of flowers flows from a mass of tissue that might be interpreted as a tumor. In another, an intricate network of forms turns out to be intestines (I think). And in yet another, what looks from a distance like a massive hyacinth blossom proves to be, on closer inspection, a ring of brains.
Regardless of their content, Prusa's pieces always command the space they inhabit. And clearly they've caught the eye of South Florida's art community during the past few years. Network, the aforementioned hyacinth/brain hybrid, was recently named Best in Show at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood's first "All-Media Juried Biennial." Soon after, another Prusa piece earned the same distinction at the Boca Raton Museum of Art's "52nd Annual All Florida Juried Competition and Exhibition."
The list goes on. Last year, a pair of Prusa's paintings made it into the Hortt 43 competition, a selection of her recent work was part of a four-artist show at the Coral Springs Museum of Art, and she was one of the nine artists showcased at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art as recipients of the South Florida Cultural Fellowship for Visual and Media Artists.
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Prusa plunged into 2003 with a one-woman show at the Kendall Campus Art Gallery of Miami-Dade Community College. The exhibition's brochure features commentary by Miami-based writer and artist Gean Moreno that is so provocative -- dildos are discussed extensively -- that a disclaimer is included: "This essay is not connected with, endorsed by and does not represent the views of Miami-Dade Community College or its district board of trustees."
OK, so the brochure's cover highlights Prusa's Lick and Lap, in which a mass of her intestinal forms joins forces with a corona of stylized tongues to form a floral pattern that might also be read as something... oh, anal.
Curiosity finally got the best of me, and I tracked Prusa down -- to a sort-of-suburban home in Boca Raton, where she lives with her husband and two teenage kids. A thin, 40-something woman with short dark hair and an easy unassuming manner, she's hardly the sort of person one might expect to give birth to such graphic imagery. Instead, she comes across more like a stay-at-home wife and mother you might run into in the supermarket. No artsy-fartsy pretentiousness here, just a sharp intelligence and an intense devotion to her work.
Prusa's recent cash awards have helped finance a little studio off the back of her house, a modest indulgence for an artist who tends to work on a fairly large scale (as in paintings four feet wide and seven feet tall). The studio is full of art past, present, and future, although it's hard to tell which is which. Prusa has developed an instantly recognizable style that ties her work together.
The preoccupation with innards is no coincidence. Although her MFA from Iowa's Drake University is in painting with a minor in drawing, her initial academic training, at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Urbana, was in medical illustration. "I dissected bodies," she says simply. "And I drew bodies."
The artist taught at both of her alma maters as well as at Iowa State University before joining the faculty four years ago at Florida Atlantic University. Over the years, she has worked in figurative and conceptual art, including performance art, before settling into her current style. Along the way, color more or less disappeared from her work, leaving behind the pale, delicate forms that have become her trademark. "Color became really jarring to me," she recalls. "It just seemed to be so invasive."
Prusa also gave up canvas in favor of plywood panels, which, she says, work better for her. She typically sands the wood before applying up to six coats of gesso (a sort of wash of plaster and fixative) and sometimes drawing on the surface with silverpoint. She grinds and mixes her own blends of such ingredients as graphite, sulfur, and acrylics.
I was a bit surprised to learn that Prusa lays her panels flat on a horizontal surface before painting on them. But she explained that she likes to be able to tilt the work surface around, the better to control the washes she usually uses for background. Sometimes she'll overlay an image with a grid of thin, almost imperceptible lines. For Apron, one of the pieces in Hortt 43, a mass of intricate innards is set off by nearly two dozen jet-black ovals that seem to float on the surface of the painting's lower half.
"I'll look at an anatomy textbook," Prusa says of her sources for imagery, although the final results will be filtered through her own sensibility, which tends toward stylized symmetrical imagery. She says she enters a period of introspection before starting a painting and will spend as much as a month completing it.
Prusa acknowledges an interest in the work of such artists as Picasso, Francis Bacon ("I love how he divides the space"), Arshile Gorky, and, especially, Egon Schiele, although she also recognizes that it might be difficult to discern the influence of these artists in her own work, except obliquely. Lee Bontecue and Ann Hamilton are among contemporaries whose work she admires.
I mention the biomorphic art of Swiss surrealist H.R. Giger, probably best-known for his designs for the creatures in the Alien movies. "I don't look at his work," Prusa says brusquely. And then it hits me. Giger's imagery is dark and harsh, an aggressively masculine merging of human forms and sleek machinery. Despite a superficial similarity, Prusa's lovingly rendered entrails and floral forms are a world away; they also have a distinctly feminine feel.
At one point during our visit, I tell Prusa her paintings seem strongest when exhibited in twos or threes. She agrees but admits that her triptychs are a practical matter as well -- artists are often limited to three submissions to a group show, so she simply puts a trio of works together. Invariably, based on what I've seen, they work together beautifully.
She also confesses a fantasy. "I had this idea of a whole room being filled with these," she says, gesturing to the pieces lining the studio. And that's the idea I take away from Prusa's studio: a whole museum or gallery devoted to these big strangely gorgeous images.
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