A downy white piglet, bejeweled. An antelope with enhanced silver antlers sporting the Yves Saint Laurent logo. A baby crocodile with a wind-up key sprouting from its back. A lion in sweet repose, its torso giving way to graduated globules of gold.
This isn’t your big-game-hunting great-uncle’s taxidermy, but a compendium of contemporary artworks by a diverse group of rogue taxidermists: Julia deVille of Australia, Peter Gronquist of Portland, Ore., Lisa Black of New Zealand and The Idiots (Afke Golsteijn and Floris Bakker) of the Netherlands, respectively.
Showcasing world-class talent is just one of many accomplishments of Robert Marbury’s eye-popping and informative Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself. The peripatetic Marbury, who lives in Baltimore, directs the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, co-hosts and judges the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest in Brooklyn and curates the taxidermy biennial at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles, lectures all over the world.
In Taxidermy Art, Marbury defines rogue taxidermy as, “a genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing traditional taxidermy materials used in an unconventional manner.” His own take is most unusual—“vegan taxidermy”—and he’s best known for repurposing the tattered stuffed animals tied to the grills of New York City municipal trucks for whimsical takes on traditional mounts.
“It’s all about how you actually say the words together: am I a ‘vegan taxidermist,’ or am I a vegan [who’s a] taxidermist? The idea, at the time that I was taking stuffed animals and reusing them, was that art’s a pretty wasteful medium. When you can kind of take as much of that waste as you can and create something new, that feels pretty good. But I’m not a vegan, and to this day I go places and people say, ‘You’re a vegan taxidermist—we’ve made this wonderful vegan meal,’ ” says Marbury, appreciatively.
In order to skillfully fabricate inorganic mounts, Marbury studied with traditionalists working with real animal skins (taxi-, to arrange; dermis, skin)—well enough to be able to teach it himself. Thus a second component of Taxidermy Art is lessons on DIY mounts for squirrels and birds. For squirrels, “Once your cut is long enough to give you access to the legs, reach under the skin and work your hand around each limb. Invert each one by pushing it into the body and popping it out of the skin. (This move is called ‘taking off the pajamas.’),” Marbury writes.
(Whether approached as a hobby or with artistic intentions, taxidermy is not for the faint of heart or stomach.)
Part gallery, part instruction manual, Taxidermy Art rounds out with a bit of history and manifesto. “The Canon,” an illustrated timeline celebrating taxidermy’s earliest practitioners, includes Pliny the Elder, Rudolf II and an imposing Dutchman with the intriguing sobriquet Ole Worm, as well as more modern figures who’ve impacted social perceptions. It is to that end, at the suggestion of fellow taxidermist Mark Dion, that Marbury includes Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock.
“Alfred Hitchcock had probably the largest impact on taxidermy in popular culture because of Psycho, and it’s that small, sort of different way of looking at the subject that makes me excited,” Marbury says. “Of course, why wouldn’t he be? His influence, whether we want to acknowledge it or not, was enormous, and that’s why professional taxidermists, they’re [thought of as] always a little off, they can’t quite keep from murdering. Just the opposite, in fact: They tend to be very quiet people who are very thoughtful about nature and about life.”
The Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists encourages this thoughtfulness by prohibiting the killing of animals in the service of taxidermy. Rogue taxidermists make use of materials like roadkill, old mounts and naturally deceased animals to make their art—with an emphasis on adhering to local laws and personal ethics.
“Ethics are much harder, because we all individually develop our sense of what’s ethical, (obviously within cultural norms),” Marbury says. “For example, [my wife and I] lost our dog. I’m not at all interested in having her preserved in the way that other people I know are, and it’s very personal. If I had had somebody pushing me to put a hat on her, or playing a violin…it’s not my thing. But I respect somebody who feels that that’s what they want to do, and so it ends up being more of a conversation.”
With its bold orange cover and compelling content, Taxidermy Art is bound to be a worthy conversation piece in any home.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.