Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How To Do It Yourself
By Robert Marbury
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
For meat dishes, few things compare to venison. One of my favorite game meats comes from deer. Fortunately I come from a family of avid hunters. But coming into possession of venison will involve someone wearing blaze orange and dispatching the deer with a rifle. The death of an animal and my enjoyment of its meat is a troubling situation. It’s hard to come to terms with this carnivorous dilemma when one only sees sterile sections plastic-wrapped in the Meat Department of your local supermarket. The meat remains, but the process has been erased. One’s curiosity gets stifled by the warning, “Don’t ask how the sausage gets made.”
With hunting, gun ownership, meat eating, and animal rights, things can get simplified, people get hysterical, and everyone loses sight of things like context, tradition, and caloric intake. Social media doesn’t help matters. For addlepated false equivalence by the truck load, look no further than a Facebook feed. One on side you have the animal rights advocates, caricatured with a phrase like, “You cruel bastard! You can’t kill deer.” (The cuteness of deer also helps the emotional sentimentality of their rhetorical attacks.) On on the other side, you have people like Joe the Plumber uttering this marvelous chestnut, “Your dead kids don’t trump my constitutional rights.” (Is he really a Family Values icon? He sounds like he’s auditioning for a role in a Marquis de Sade novel.)
All these complex issues and the fun-house mirror of social media bring me to Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How To Do It Yourself by Robert Marbury. Marbury is one of the founding members of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermy (MART). He curates a book showcasing several other rogue taxidermists, a selection spanning the globe. But what is Rogue Taxidermy? Marbury defines it as “A genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed-media sculptures containing traditional taxidermy materials used in an unconventional manner.” The traditional taxidermy mount can be seen in such settings as a relative’s house or a museum. In one case the mounted deer head celebrates the triumph of the hunt. A trophy. For the museum the taxidermy specimen is used as a tool for research and education. During the Renaissance and Baroque eras, aristocrats and natural philosophers constructed intricate Wunderkammern (curiosity cabinets). The Milwaukee Public Museum has a modern interpretation of a curiosity cabinet when you walk into the main entrance. An exhibit, dense with specimens, hits the viewer. Skeletons of ancient mammals, mounted taxidermy specimens, pinned beetles and butterflies, and so on. One can experience a similar experience walking through Woolly Mammoth Antiques & Oddities. Victorian medical kits, a mounted giraffe head (and neck!), quack cures, bookshelves crammed with skulls, and so on.
Marbury curates the book’s selection of artists, providing the reader with a fascinating convergence between contemporary art and the curiosity cabinet. The book’s structure is also a bit of a chimera. It begins with a history of taxidermy, highlighting the taxidermists, artists, and scientists instrumental in the medium. The bulk of the book is examples taken from rogue taxidermists. The concluding section is a detailed how-to for aspiring rogue taxidermists. It includes instructions on dry and wet preservation. (Wet preservation can be seen in sideshows with “pickled punks” and the “human head in jar” trope in the horror and science fiction genres.) It also includes more advanced lessons on things like brain tanning.
The rogue taxidermy runs the gamut of styles and techniques. Marbury is a practitioner of “vegan taxidermy.” He re-purposes stuffed animals. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is not using animals that have been intentionally killed. Marbury advises on using roadkill or feeder animals (pre-killed and refrigerated animals used to feed snakes). All artists confront the issues of death, meat consumption, and environmental ethics, although finding a commonality among the artists approaches impossibility. Some are art school trained. Some were traditional taxidermists. Others were untrained amateurs until they discovered rogue taxidermy.
A couple noteworthy examples include Mother’s Little Helper Monkey by MART founding member Sarina Brewer. A winged monkey wearing a fez and holding a martini glass stares out with fangs bared. Elizabeth McGrath pieces “have dark back-stories … and wear their adversity like drag performances.” Truth Lights Cougar looks like a wall-mounted head of a hairless cat, but its skin is a pale blue. On its skin are dozens of gorgeous tattoos and icons from Catholicism. Peter Grondquist, from Portland, Oregon, has work that dons the cover. His work is a darkly satirical riff on luxury and loot. He has deer heads sporting gold machine-guns or gold fashion logos. Finally, there is Kate Clark from Brooklyn. She creates taxidermy pieces straight out of the Uncanny Valley. Her pieces have realistically sculpted human faces. They are beautiful, but also deeply disturbing. Other artists have dealt with legal issues. German law forbids the use of roadkill in art.
Taxidermy Art is fun, informative, and educational. One can browse the artistic pieces, marveling at the variations of technique and opinion. And if one is so inclined, Marbury’s taxidermy lessons at the end of the book prove easy enough to follow. The directions and illustrations make it user-friendly as with any good cook book.
Out of 10/9.0; and 10 for fans of pop surrealism, DIY culture, and aspiring rogue taxidermists.