Once seen, the surreal, meticulously realized sculptures and installations of Mark Prent cannot be forgotten. His vision of the human body in extremis – pierced, cut up, bleeding, drowning, diseased, writhing in agony – will haunt your dreams and stir up deeply buried fears.
The work also stirred up the constabulary. Mr. Prent’s first solo shows at Toronto’s Isaacs Gallery, in 1972 and 1974, were both raided by Toronto police, who charged his dealer Av Isaacs with “displaying a disgusting object,” an offence under the Criminal Code. On both occasions, charges were thrown out before they could come to trial, and the Isaacs Gallery continued to show his work until it closed in 1991. (More recently, Gallery Gevik has become his Toronto dealer.)
Over his five decades as a working artist, Mr. Prent had some 40 solo shows in Canada, the U.S, Germany and the Netherlands and took part in numerous group shows. His last show was at the Gagosian Gallery on Park Avenue in New York in November, 2019, where he was paired with H.R. Giger, a Swiss designer who created the title character for the 1979 sci-fi film Alien. The show’s curator, Harmony Korine, called the work of the two artists “dense and powerful … filled with strange magic.”
Mr. Prent died on Sept. 2 of an aortic aneurysm at the University of Vermont Medical Center near his home in St. Albans, Vt. He and his family had lived there since moving from Montreal in search of more studio space. Mr. Prent was 72.
“He was most creative at the end of his life. He never lost his youthful spark of imagination,” his wife and occasional collaborator Susan Real Prent said in a phone interview.
Mark Prent was born Dec. 23, 1947, in Lodz, Poland, to a Catholic mother, Maria Markowski, and a Jewish father, Karol Pinkusiewicz. Their risky and forbidden marriage before the Second World War was followed by the birth of a baby boy named Edu. The couple became separated by the Holocaust. Maria, alone and on the run, found herself with a sick baby and went from hospital to hospital desperate to obtain penicillin for the child, but was repeatedly turned away; medications were reserved for German soldiers. Edu died. Maria spent time in a concentration camp while Karol was imprisoned in the Soviet Union. When the war ended, each believed the other was dead.
All the Pinkusiewicz family who had stayed in Poland perished, but Karol had a sister who had moved to China and from there to Montreal. A brother also made an early escape from Poland and was in Canada.
“Poland was experiencing new privations under their Soviet occupiers,” Susan Prent recalled, explaining how the little family, reunited with help from the Red Cross, came to Canada. “From that perspective Mark’s entire life was sort of a miracle.”
With six-month-old Mark, his parents landed in Montreal in 1948 where they changed their name to Prent. Maria waitressed and Karol (now Carl) became a businessman.
Susan Prent recalled that her in-laws worked very hard trying to make a new life. In 1971, when she met Mark Prent at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia), he had just obtained his fine arts degree. She immediately noticed how hard and fast he, too, worked. “Mark was a workaholic,” she says. Ms. Real, as she then was, had already had her mind blown by seeing his first solo show of plastic “monstrosities and cannibal feasts” at the university’s gallery.
Soon they were a couple and they married in 1983, the year they moved to Vermont.
At Sir George Williams, Mr. Prent’s teacher and mentor was the sculptor John Ivor Smith, who encouraged him to take an unconventional direction. It was Mr. Smith, whose own dealer was Av Isaacs, who connected the young artist with the avant-garde Toronto gallery.
In 1975, Mr. Prent was awarded a generous grant along with 24 other international artists by the German Academic Exchange, a government body, to live and work in West Berlin, then a democratic enclave entirely surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. The city was a mecca for young artists. The two years he spent there with Susan immersed in the international art world resulted in major exhibitions of his work in Amsterdam, Nuremberg and Berlin.
Mr. Prent was a technical wizard, constantly experimenting with new materials including fibreglass, polyester resin and pigmented silicones to find more accurate ways to depict the colour and texture of the human body. To make moulds for body parts, he did not hesitate to use his own anatomy. Sometimes the work included a touch of black humour, as in his famous piece Prickles, large glass jars packed with what looked like large dill pickles, at first glance.
He loved hunting through junk shops, inspired by the strange detritus of human life. A fencing mask, sea urchin spines, gazelle horns, human teeth, animal skulls, old crutches, gas masks, a vintage deli scale – his odd finds inspired new work, sometimes years later.
After his early room-sized installations such as Hanging is very important and And is there anything else you’d like, Madame? He turned to smaller work featuring acrobats and contortionists, and even made some intricate silver jewellery.
“Prent was ahead of his time with regard to his fascination not only with the body, but with the vulnerable body. It was only in the eighties that that kind of work here became more widespread. His work seemed out of place, shocking even, in 1970s Toronto,” commented Oliver Botar, professor of art history at the University of Manitoba and a scholar of the avant-garde.
Among Canadian artists, Mr. Prent was considered an outlier, but internationally he was part of a trend in the late 20th century by artists to explore the body. The California installation artist Edward Kienholz, who died in 1994 and had been a friend of the Prents in Berlin, created installations that dealt with surgery, war and rape. Another U.S. sculptor, Kiki Smith, is fascinated by sickness and bodily fluids. The Turner-prize winning British artist Antony Gormley, like Mr. Prent, used his own body for casts.
Directors of horror movies including Guillermo del Toro and David Cronenberg especially appreciated and sometimes bought Mr. Prent’s work – generally not an easy sell to private collectors. Critics could be harsh. When in 1987, the Power Plant in Toronto mounted a double show titled Crimes Against Nature featuring Mr. Cronenberg’s film clips and Mr. Prent’s sculptures. The Globe and Mail’s art critic John Bentley Mays complained that “Prent’s work[s] are slight curiosities packaged and promoted … as high art.”
There was a price to pay for the controversy that engulfed his early shows. Ms. Prent believes it made Canada’s risk-averse public art museums wary of buying and showing her husband’s large works, which private collectors couldn’t accommodate. Making them had used up a lot of their financial resources.
While the Art Gallery of Ontario and Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain own Prent sculptures, the National Gallery of Canada does not. For much of his life, Mr. Prent counted on Canada Council grants – he received 17 of them – Art Bank purchases, and a weekly teaching gig at Concordia (done remotely from Vermont after the pandemic hit) to support himself. He and his wife also started a side business called Pink House selling such macabre art supplies as glass eyes and “disarticulated skull replicas.”
A cheerful man uninterested in probing his own psyche, he did admit toward the end of his life that his parents' experiences during the Holocaust may have influenced him. But Mr. Prent disliked simplistic questions about what he was trying to say through his art or whether his work was about man’s inhumanity to man. He repeatedly asserted that he had no message and it was up to the viewer to decide on a response.
Five years ago, he wrote in an artist statement included in a catalogue of his major works: “I want the pieces to be open-ended for my viewers just as they are for me so that no definite conclusion is ever reached.”
Mr. Prent leaves his wife, Susan, and son, Jesse.