Mixed Pickles

Close your eyes. Imagine the bits and pieces left on the floor of a slaughterhouse. Consider the by-products of a veterinary surgery. Now imagine this detritus being gathered up and stitched together by Norman Bates from Psycho. The result? A strangely beautiful and surreal art known by practitioners and devotees as Rogue Taxidermy.

Taxidermy, which literally means “arrangement of skin”, was a special craft developed to exhibit the many kinds of exotic animals and strange specimens brought back from far-flung parts of the world. It flourished in the 18th Century, when voyagers and explorers would collect the skulls and skins of little-known creatures to display in private Cabinets of Curiosity. Later, Natural History museums began using the technique to present lifelike dioramas of birds and beasts. More recently, artists like Damien Hirst and Joel-Peter Witkin have caused controversies with their use of “real” human and animal parts. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and taxidermy isn’t limited to the realm of galleries and museums: it’s also a traditional part of the sideshow. In this spirit, Rogue Taxidermists — generally independent artists whose work is too eclectic or lowbrow to cause much of a stir — “advocate the showmanship of oddities, espouse the belief in natural adaptation and mutation, and encourage the desire to create displays of curiosity.”

The movement began with three artists from Minnesota, and though there are now Rogue Taxidermists all over world, the main US-based collective works under the title of the original group, the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, or MART. Queen of the bunch is Minneapolis-based Sarina Brewer, founder of Custom Creature Taxidermy, and creator of “outlandish reveries of fur and flesh.” Brewer creates fictional composite animals for discerning collectors and thoughtful connoisseurs. Her odd, hybrid sculptures bring to mind creatures from ancient myth, exotic beasts from travelers’ tales: devil-cats, unicorns, flying monkeys and three-headed squirrels. These unique mounts are beautifully creepy, alarmingly realistic, and, more often than not, ugly-adorable. They’re not cheap, but Brewer also offers pickled pets at pocket prices for those of lesser means: $12 buys you a skinned rabbit head, $15 a jar of small mammal hearts. By day, Ms. Brewer is a licensed taxidermist and does traditional work for museums and private collectors. Leftovers from her work are made into jewelry (necklaces and earrings from animal parts cost between $15 and $20 apiece), or sold unadorned: dried squirrel tails by the dozen; birds’ wings; cleaned skulls, and pickled feet.

Scott Bibus, the second founder member of MART, specializes in more grotesque and disturbing artworks featuring semi-skinned creatures depicted in bloody tableaux, which are perhaps inspired by his day job of making latex props for horror films and haunted houses. Current sculptures include “Siamese Frogs”, “Screaming Housecat”, “Roadkill Opposum” (teeming with maggots), “Anti-Trophy” (a poised, decapitated gull), and “Fox Face Platter”, a bloody still life that’s perhaps best left to the imagination. Many of his works depict animals that have survived various unnamed disasters; an eviscerated guinea-pig, a squirrel chewing on a human finger, a rat eating its own legs. Bibus is interested in the cultural disconnect whereby we gladly use animals for clothing and decoration, and yet flinch in horror at explicitly violent images. By removing the evidence of pain and slaughter, he suggests, an activity such as “sitting on a leather couch” perhaps allows us to “brush against the edge of a great fear.” This “great fear” is viscerally embodied by Bibus’s horribly magnificent sculptures, in which he inverts the usual process of taxidermy by discarding much of the carcass and posing the guts. The results are sublime, though definitely not suited for your grandma’s mantelpiece, unless your grandma happens to be a serial killer.

Third founder member Robert Marbury works with more familiar, less blood-curdling materials, turning ordinary stuffed toys into fantasy creatures of the imagination. Marbury’s Urban Beast Project involves recycling the skins of discarded teddy bears and other plush toys, and turning them into “feral relatives” of their cuddly kin, which are then displayed in community gardens, abandoned lots, or public trees. Some of the Urban Beasts are made purely for display, others appear to be designed as new forms of household pets. By using ordinary stuffed animals, Marbury demystifies the process of taxidermy, although his Urban Beasts resemble no biological genus or species except, perhaps, those discussed in the annals of cryptozoology.

Most rogue taxidermists have a formal art education, and may also be employed as sculptors, crafters, taxidermists or other kinds of artists, and often incorporate this more “legitimate” kind of work into their anomalous sculptures. For example, Miranda Winn makes colorful painted boxes, each decorated with a themed diorama; these boxes then become frames to display “recycled weasels, farmed snakes and articulated skeletons.” Dressmaker Monique Motil gussies up her dead things in homemade outfits, like pretty little dolls, and exhibits them as “sartorial creatures and other curious monstrosities.”

Animal lovers may find these sculptures distasteful and unpleasant to look at, but most Rogue Taxidemists consider themselves nature enthusiasts (many are vegans or vegetarians), and most see their work as a way of appreciating animals, and bringing them a new kind of life. Body parts are invariably acquired post mortem, either from salvaged roadkill, or through taxidermy supply companies, which trade in antlers, tails, teeth, claws, fur and wings. Other Rogue Taxidermists use offal from abbatoirs and slaughterhouses, or animals donated by vets after they’ve been “put to sleep”. These artists intuitively foreground what’s most disturbing about the process of taxidermy, which is the way it blurs the distinction between the living and the dead.

As with the embalming of human cadavers, or the plastinated bodies of Gunther von Hagens, these uncanny sculptures erode the boundaries commonly believed to divide living things from inanimate objects, bringing to mind childhood nightmares of zombies, voodoo dolls, and toys that come to life in the night. Of course, there’s an unsettling quality to everything that makes use of dead bodies, from primitive shrines, Nazi relics, talismans and fetishes, to shrunken heads and the preserved remains of saints. Rogue Taxidermy, however, does not pay homage to death so much as pay tribute to the overlooked detritus of the natural world, of which death is only a part.