Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art  
Michael Greenwood

Mark Prent: Catharsis and the Incarnate Nightmare

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #2, March 1979
[ 3,360 words ]


The effect of Mark Prent's work on its first appearance before a startled Canadian public eight years ago was predictably controversial, not to say explosive. General reactions were on one hand shock and bewilderment, on the other moral outrage. Even those prepared to take the work seriously were plainly confused about its aims and meaning, while at the other end of the scale of toleration, in Ontario especially, the official watchdogs of public morality lost no time in pouncing with righteous indignation upon the artist's courageous impressario, Mr. Avrom Isaacs.

Prent's subsequent reputation as a highly gifted if extremely disturbing sculptor quickly caught up with his unwelcome notoriety. But if for some time the chief debate focused more on the principle of artistic freedom than on the many questions raised by an exceptionally problematic oeuvre, that is not entirely surprising. The very nature of the work itself provokes such a strong reaction of psychological resistance that even the most unprejudiced observer has extreme difficulty, at least initially, in approaching it with an open and dispassionate mind.

Evidently dismayed by the extremities of violence displayed in images that for sheer unmitigated horror are perhaps without equal since the days of Jerome Bosch, critics and other commentators sought to ascribe humanitarian motives to the artist rather than impute others too frightful to contemplate.

But however well intentioned, such an interpretation fails to convince on either count. For Prent is by no means an homme engagé, and certainly he is not a sadist. He has repeatedly insisted that the gross inhumanity of man is not his concern, that his work should on no account be construed as an indictment of the cruelty and terror that mock our century's claim to humanitarian progress. As an artist, Prent has absolutely no intention to preach to, or reform, the world.

If we can legitimately speak of a moral side to Prent's art, it should be conceived only as a state of faithful obedience to the commands of the artist's imagination. And if that inner vision brings to light an aspect of human nature which we know to be wholly unacceptable by any standards of decent civilized behaviour, again that cannot be held against the artist. On the contrary, it is a tribute to Prent's instinctual awareness of those aptly termed 'powers of darkness', which since the dawn of life have loomed menacingly over the fate of mankind.

It seems quite clear, in fact, that Prent has little choice in the matter. He is moved evidently by an irresistible compulsion to give shape and a terrible beauty to fantasies that lie buried in the depths of the human personality and form an inseparable component of the collective unconscious of mankind.

The fantasies that Prent translates into such vividly concrete images are of an essentially familiar kind. Indeed, so compelling is their physical and psychological reality that we seem to be confronted with a literal incarnation of our most dreaded nightmares. It is this first terrifying encounter that many people understandably find so difficult to deal with, and which creates a formidable barrier to their experience of the work purely as art or, at a deeper instinctual level, as a mirror of psychological truths in which to discover, and become reconciled to, the antisocial and generally suppressed aspects of their own personalities.

The viewer's sensibilities are exposed to a shattering assault that the artist makes little attempt to soften. The sharply focused, emphatically tangible surfaces of the sculptures, saturated as they are with horrific associations, offer virtually no respite from the insistently painful character of the image. There is no amelioration of their brutal impact through the process of transcription into a more 'neutral' medium — wood or bronze, for instance —that would serve to remove the objects from the world of palpable existence to the safer regions of a purely 'artistic' experience.

Yet perhaps the initial shock, harsh as it is, is after all a necessary prelude to the subsequent process of reconciliation. Its effect is unexpectedly cathartic. Intangible terrors are brought out into the light of day and assume a recognizable, if symbolic, identity. They can at least be assimilated to some degree of objective comprehension. As the shock is thus gradually absorbed, so the viewer experiences a sense of release and purgation. He becomes conscious of another level of reality that forms the pervasive inner content lying behind all the various scenarios in which the artist's fantasy finds expression. Beneath the manifest images of pain, mutilation and death, the viewer begins to sense a transcendent energy, a life force, that triumphs over the powers of destruction.

Strangely enough, moreover, the lineaments of violence and death, which at first were so repellent, now reveal qualities of form and colour that possess a luminous and magical beauty. At the same time we begin to appreciate the mastery and finesse of Prent's craftsmanship, the astonishing refinement of detail, and though it may seem an inappropriate term, his consummate taste. Thus 'art,' which appeared to have so little place in Prent's macabre world, suddenly makes an unexpected, radiant appearance, like the flush of dawn over a battlefield.

Prent's special destiny as an artist is to reconcile the destructive forces of the unconscious to creative and life-giving actions. If the physical appearance of his work appears to be confined exclusively to images of death and dehumanization, there is, nevertheless, no sense of finality in them, but always an implication of change and renewal. Implicit in those images are the same elemental powers that humanity has attempted to control since life began. In the twilight zone of unconscious motivation, the artist is a passive, unwitting mediator of those blind forces within him, driven to create in the structure and symbolism of his work a model of the unending and simultaneous process of creation, destruction and metamorphosis in which the basic energies of the universe are manifested.

It is in its ritual aspects that Prent's art expresses this fundamental theme and appears to partake of certain priestly and shamanic functions. Seen in this light, his environmental pieces could be interpreted as symbolic enactments of deeply buried primordial instincts transformed into a theatre of sculptural archetypes. One cannot avoid recognizing a distinct affinity between the temple-like enclosures and what happens within them as conceived by Prent, and the ceremonies connected with sacrificial offerings and propitiation, or with thanksgiving and atonement, performed since history began by those appointed to mediate between the unseen powers of the universe and the needs, physical and spiritual, of social man.

The ancient theme of Death and Resurrection, the sacrifice of life to ensure its survival and to placate unseen powers has not ceased to occupy the attention of artists in our own time, though treatment of the subject in terms of religious or mythological exemplars has virtually disappeared. At the turn of the century 'Cycle of Life' themes were much in vogue as a substitute, often heavily pessimistic in their emphasis on the ravages of time, the triumph of death, and the helplessness of the individual as a plaything of fortune.

More recently, however, the theme has tended to be internalized, either in the structure of the work itself — Cubism, for example, provides an interesting model of the process of disintegration and fragmentation of the object and reconstruction of the shattered fragments in completely new forms (synthesis and metamorphosis) or in images recalled from dreams or evoked by improvisatory techniques. In submitting to the dictates of the unconscious the artist seeks to discover within himself the primitive origins of creativity, to revitalize himself, art and society by tapping the energies of nature at their source.

The artist's act of submission is in itself a kind of 'death,' the sacrifice of conscious will to ensure a creative rebirth, that is, to convert the inner forces of self-destruction by an unconscious process into the forms of art. Thus, his creative motivation, stemming from hidden intuitions, is itself closely linked to the endless natural rhythm of 'life' and 'death.' It is this that removes Prent's work from any direct relevance to specific human situations and places it in a more universal context.

Prent's subjects display all the typical confusion of identity and association that characterizes the nature of primordial fantasies. At this primitive level, elementary distinctions of time and space, the self and the 'other,' object and subject, are still undefined and interchangeable. All those conditions of being, which the conscious mind distinguishes as separate entities, are intermingled in Prent's work within a single figure or environmental setting.

In this respect it is significant that Prent's figures appear to have no conscious control over their behaviour or destiny. They are at the mercy of forces to which they have no choice but to submit, helplessly. Unable to act with autonomous volition they can only protest with impotent rage against their terrible victimization. Completely dehumanized, their bodies and minds are stripped of any dignity, will, intelligence, or self-possession whatsoever. Of human characteristics they retain only the outward physical envelope.

They are reduced, in effect, to mere puppets manipulated by unseen powers, mute epitomes of the tragic helplessness of mankind. Yet, however fatalistic Prent's view of the human condition may be, he invests it with an elemental grandeur and noble compassion that bring to mind the immortal classic myths of antiquity.

Almost from the first, Prent's symbolic figures have been realized in a contextual framework, some form of setting or enclosure, from the narrow confines of the infant's crib in I rest so composedly here in my bed (1970), to such elaborately contrived environments as Laughing Pathocyclists (1974), or Death in the Chair (1973). This interaction of figures with their setting is essential to the complete expression of the inner theme of the works. Without such interaction the 'life cycle' theme of destruction and restitution, the latent drama in which the figures are symbolic protagonists, would be incomplete and unresolved.

The environmental settings serve a variety of basic human needs. In the first place they provide the artist with an outlet for the satisfaction of positive, creative urges. They meet an imperative need to compensate for the hostile nature of his original impulse by the act of repairing the fantasied damage. Within these protective structures the artist can ensure the survival of the precious remains of destruction and loss so that they will be returned to life in the guise of art. As vaults, tombs and coffins are intended to preserve the immortality of their deceased occupants, so Prent's 'environments' similarly protect their tenants from further harm and establish a ritualized covenant with the unseen powers of nature.

His emotional energies thus released from the debilitating thrall of unconscious guilt, the artist can thereafter devote himself undividedly to the solution of structural and aesthetic problems. He can call upon boundless resources of energy to the pursuit of perfection in the works themselves, seeking to render them with the closest possible resemblance to his vision. We have already noted certain rather obvious similarities between the works of Mark Prent and those of Jerome Bosch. Both artists conjure up an alarming world of spiritual anguish pregnant with the sense of doom. But also they both redeem that guilt-laden world by a power of imagination that transforms its grosser realities into magical and transcendent visions. Yet another point of legitimate comparison between the two artists may be found in the strange translucent pallor of their figures' flesh tones, whose colours seem to belong to another world altogether where life and death have equal dominion.

While the artist's mise-en-scènes remove the actions depicted from the sphere of reality to one of ritualistic performance, they also compel the viewer to establish a closer relationship to the real theme of the work, that is, to its inner content and significance. To remain a neutral spectator is virtually impossible. The viewer is drawn into the environment as a participant in the mysteries that the artist in his mediumistic role has invoked.

Thus, in Death in the Chair (1973), we are invited to play a key part in the macabre ritual of an electrocution by throwing the fatal switch that galvanizes the victim in the dreadful convulsions of death. This bizarre and ambiguous drama illustrates one of the artist's basic themes: the sacrificial offering and simultaneous preservation of a suitable victim. By taking the life of another the murderer forfeits his own. He loses his identity in becoming a scapegoat, who must be sacrificed. But at the same time the victim is symbolically elevated and his dark powers acknowledged. The ceremony is designed to render him personally anonymous. He is attired for the ritual atonement in a uniform and helmet resembling a space-man's, seated on an elaborate throne, in the hieratic posture of an absolute monarch. But Death the Emperor cannot himself die, and after the sacrifice still reigns enthroned in magisterial authority, an ironical emblem of the immortal powers that he symbolizes.

Another life-in-death theme related to a ceremony of sacrifice can be found in Operating Room (1974), where the victim, a woman with the head and trotters of a pig is fastened unconscious to the operating table (sacrificial altar), with a surgical wound in her chest through which interior organs can be seen throbbing to the rhythm of the blood stream.

Once again the setting is unmistakably ritualistic, the vessels and paraphernalia of surgery corresponding to those of religious ceremony. The surgeon is given command over life and death, the priest likewise. The human identity of the victim is degraded to that of swine, regarded traditionally as the most bestial, earthbound and mindless of brutes. The victim is entirely deprived of any attribute of human dignity or consciousness. All that remains is an elementary physical function, the heart beat, token of an unconquerable and universal life-force that survives the death of individual creatures.

The life-cycle pattern that emerges from the symbolism of Prent's work may be unintentional, but is nevertheless all the more potent for being the involuntary expression of forces deeply rooted in the human psyche, which in their own pattern of development are analogous to the cyclical processes of nature. Themes closely related to those already mentioned appear in a series of early works that could be described as 'metabolic' allegories.

While giving vivid and dramatic expression to primitive oral-erotic fantasies of devouring and being devoured, such works as Hanging is Very Important (1972) also illustrate the now familiar pattern of destruction, assimilation and metamorphosis in new life formss that returns again and again in Prent's work.

Here is a subject that outrageously violates that most deeply entrenched of human taboos: the eating of human flesh. Traditionally in our society the killing and consumption of animals is accompanied by a form of aesthetic ritual. To placate the guilt aroused by association, the destructive act of slaughter is transformed into a creative one. A butcher or fishmonger's shop — at least before the era of pre-packaging — was often arranged with scrupulous attention to the formal arrangement of its merchandise. Symmetrical ranks of carefully balanced carcasses hung from the ceiling, while upon graduated tiers on the marble counter were displayed tastefully composed patterns of legs, shoulders, loins and other joints, descending to rows of heads, tongues, cutlets, livers and kidneys, all arranged in the most artistic manner. Thus the act of creation makes amends for the original carnage by assimilating its own content, however unpleasant, in the process of transforming the latter into an acceptably 'artistic' metamorphosis.

In this work the sacrificial aspect is again underlined by the enclosed 'shrine,' with its grotesque, icily preserved victims who in being destined for the table will eventually be re-assimilated to the life-cycle. Besides commenting ironically on the psychological strategies devised by mankind to compensate for aggressive impulses, the work also has significant features in common with certain extremely ancient nature myths in which primitive gods, such as Saturn, for instance, devour and regurgitate their own children. Thus, human fantasy as expressed in art and myth also reflects fundamental laws of nature.

In the earliest of the works in the present exhibition, And I rest so composedly / Now in my bed / That any beholder / Might fancy me dead (1970), Edgar Allan Poe's anguished feelings of deprivation are re-created by Prent in a hauntingly poignant image. The poet's obsession with mortality began at the age of three with the death of his beautiful, twenty-four-old mother. Again and again in his life the same pattern of heartrending loss was repeated with the deaths of other women whom he loved, his young wife, Virginia, and his adoptive mother, Frances Allan. Inevitably, in Poe's emotional life, love and death, bliss and suffering, were one and the same. Death itself became an object of nostalgic desire.

The poem to Annie Richmond, a young married woman with whom he was in love at a distance, is full of plaintive longing for the sleep of death.

She tenderly kissed me,
          She fondly caressed,
And then I fell gently
          To sleep on her breast —

Deeply to sleep
          From the heaven of her breast.


In Prent's transcription, the poet's bed has become quite appropriately an infant's portable crib, a regressive image that carries the dual connotation of birth and death. The occupant of the crib has the face of an adult, not physically dead but totally withdrawn from normal consciousness, his rigid gaze fixed on infinite vistas of loss, his personality suspended in a state of hallucinated introspection. Death and immortality are rendered in a composite image, a reflection of ambiguous, intermingling identities, just as the cribs and coffins in Prent's repertoire of images are always interchangeable. The agony of emotional death is also the birth pangs of an immortal poem. The cyclical process is always in motion.

In yet another work with the same basic theme, Thawing Out (1972), Prent creates a vivid allegory of the creative process, almost Michelangeloesque in its depiction of the life-force striving for release from the frigid immobility of death. As with all the artist's enclosure devices, the refrigerator possesses multiple identities: tabernacle, womb and coffin. Prent demonstrates once again an astonishing capacity for symbol formation with the invention of this superbly apt image which conveys precisely the notion of creative rebirth, the exultancy and the pain of emergence into new life.

For the modern artist in an alienating world, the principle of creativity assumes the status of a moral imperative in itself, replacing values formerly derived from the existing social order and its beliefs. To suggest that a line can be traced between Michelangelo and Mark Prent is not to make extravagant claims for the latter but simply to recognize their common ground in a passionate commitment to the nature and meaning of human existence. While Michelangelo strove in his art to transcend the material world, the modern artist has directed his search for an 'absolute' toward the deepest levels of his own consciousness, pursuing this existential quest for meaning into regions of irrational human experience formerly disparaged in the scale of civilized values. In this, Mark Prent shows himself to be a true artist of his time, grappling tenaciously with whatever terrors the quest may hold in store for him. The power and vitality of his art bring together the extremes of primitivism and sophistication, uniting the inner and outer worlds of the artist's experience with the unchanging realities of the human condition. By sharing this experience we too can make our peace with the dark forces of life and undergo the painful joy of rebirth.


Vanguard, Vol. 8 No. 2, March 1979


Text: © The Estate of Michael Greenwood. All rights reserved.

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