During Mark Prent’s last show in Toronto in 1974 his dealer, Avrom Isaacs, was charged by the morality squad of the Metro Toronto Police with “knowingly, without lawful justification or excuse, publicly exhibiting a disgusting object.” A year and a half later a Toronto grand jury decided not to proceed with the case. Legality aside, most people find Prent’s sculpture disgusting indeed. There is no other way to describe his terrifyingly realistic portrayals of imaginary freaks, cripples, monsters, mutants, and assorted human horrors.
Undeterred by his past brushes with the law, the feisty Isaacs will be mounting a third exhibition of Prent’s work this month. Two more shows are slated for Montreal—at the Sir George Williams University gallery in December, and another in early 1979 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. All work displayed will be new, most of it having been completed recently in Europe: prices range from $650 to $40,000 for his most elaborate production—a room filled with (among other things) disembodied heads floating in water.
In the eyes of the world, except Toronto, Mark Prent, 30, is a sculptor of major importance—the only Canadian since Paul-Emile Borduas, 25 years ago, to have been exhibited at Amsterdam’s prestigious Stedelijk Museum. In 1975 Prent was invited to Berlin, all expenses paid, to do whatever he wanted. (He figures he cost the Berlin Art Program at least $20,000). His European reputation
is growing and a number of museums have expressed interest in some of his larger pieces.
But who is Mark Prent and why does he do these terrible sculptures? When asked he flashes an oversized smile which almost obliterates his eyes. His
movements are quick, jerky, full of energy. The son of a Polish hardware salesman, he resembles a young Menachem Begin and exudes a geniality utterly at variance with the assorted horrors of his work. Slight and short, he is dwarfed by the high ceilings of his huge and expensive Victorian apartment in downtown Montreal and by Susie, the artist he shares it with. Together they look like a surreal Stan and Ollie. “I’m an average, everyday guy,” he insists. “I’m not weird, my work is strange, that’s all.”
And how. One of his more elaborate pieces features a deli’s display case in which various parts of the human body —sliced breasts and smoked thighs— are priced and ready to sell. A jar on top of the counter is full of pickled penises, also for sale. The work is called... And Is There Anything Else You’d Like, Madam? In another construction, Hanging Is Very Important, he has created a refrigerated storeroom where human carcasses, each graded and stamped, hang on enormous meathooks
while awaiting the butcher’s knife. A more recent effort, and one which the artist finds humorous, is The Brat, a small black figure strapped, like a baby, into its walker; the head reels, the eyes squint, and a thick gooey liquid drips from its open mouth.
“I can view mutilation as a problem of esthetics,” says Prent. “My works are disgusting only to people whose minds are disgusting.” His intention has never
been to shock the audience. He claims it’s the reaction of children who’ve seen his work that confirms his attitude. “I’ve found time and time again that kids love it. They laugh, jump up and down and have great fun. They know it’s fantasy and not real. It’s the adults who project. The kids realize it’s only plastic.”
Prent’s avowed intention is “to freeze a moment of fantasy. I want to see these things, and I can’t find them anywhere, so I have to make them. I find it exciting, stimulating, and fun to create any fantasy.” Completely absorbed in the physical processes his sculpture involves, he describes his methods of working at great length and in considerable detail. For even the smallest piece weeks of painstaking work are required; a compulsive worker, he will spend from 25 to 30 hours at a stretch in his studio when the spirit moves him.
The fantasies themselves are a different matter; he makes no effort to understand their origin or meaning. “I haven’t got any idea. I’ve never related my imagery to what’s going on in the world. I know it’s hard for people to accept there’s no message but I would be lying through my teeth if I said there was. I am not Freud and don’t pretend to be.” His major preoccupation is with beauty. “It’s primarily a question of texture and color. There’s no doubt in my mind that my stuff is beautiful. I can’t think of another word for it. I’ve never done a piece that I can look back at and say, Tf I did it over again I’d do it differently.’ I look back at them and I’m totally satisfied. I’m prepared to be judged on any piece I’ve done. That’s how strongly I feel and how much I put into each piece.”
Most surprising of all perhaps is the survival of such an artist. Who would want to buy his sculpture? The only large piece he’s sold so far is Death in the Chair, purchased by Canada Council’s Art Bank last year for $12,000. Isaacs has sold half a dozen smaller pieces in the last five years. What enables Prent to continue is grants. “In terms of grants and fellowships,” says Isaacs, “nobody can touch him—he’s really cleaned up on them.” Prent first received assistance from the Canada Council in 1971 when awarded $3,500. That figure has grown steadily; this year he got $17,000. West Germany and the United States have also supported him.
And so he continues: days spent working in his studio, evenings at home with Susie, and an occasional Sunday dinner at his parents’ house. He remains a contented and well-subsidized gnome quietly producing sculpture that could put his dealer behind bars.
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