When Robert Marbury pulls a squirrel's skin out of his bag, the fur has something of a weird glow as Club Charles' red neon sign on the window behind us shines through the puckered eye holes.
Marbury—who lives in Baltimore City, does not hunt, and was once a vegan—is not what you think of when you think taxidermy. But Marbury, who just released his beautiful new book "Taxidermy Art," (Artisan Books) which he will discuss at Atomic Books on Oct. 9, is one of the creators of a movement called "Rogue Taxidermy," which embraces a strict set of ethics, including not killing animals, in its use of animal skins for art.
Marbury's book profiles and shows the work of 21 international artists (or 23, since two of the "artists"are collaborations), including himself, who work in this field, creating widely varied, but generally surrealist-inspired work.
"All animals have enough brains to tan their skin," Marbury says at the bar. Brain tanning, the process he used to prepare this skin, uses, as his book describes it, "the actual brains of the animal in combination with smoke to preserve the skin. . . This method of tanning introduces emulsified brain oils into the hide, while the tar in the smoke traps the oils."
Though he eventually used a squirrel's brains to cure its hide, Marbury himself got into taxidermy through stuffed animals of the plush variety—teddy bears and the like. He was a vegan, living in New York City and working at a farmers market, and he started to notice the stuffed animals that were tied to the grilles of various work trucks around the city. "There was this abandoned lot, which had thousands of stuffed animals tied to a canopy, so these guys were taking them up and taking them to this guy [who tied them to the canopy], so I started tracking these trucks and interviewing these guys. I have sort of anthro background and started interviewing professors, crazy guys, trash guys."
He was influenced by the idea of urban naturalism, which looks at cities not as opposed to nature, but as an ecosystem that is a part of nature, and saw these stuffed animals as some strange piece of that system. So when someone offered him 800 plush animals, instead of refusing, as most people would do, he jumped on the opportunity and filled a loft at an ex- (no wonder) girlfriend’s apartment. He quickly discovered that he couldn’t give the toys away—they weren’t new and they were kind of dirty—and he couldn’t sell them, so he began turning them into sculptures that “bring childlike fantasy and wonder into contemporary art through humor and the ridiculous.”
As he worked with these toys, he began looking through taxidermy catalogs and looking at the animal forms. "We love animal form and when it is ready made it is awesome," he says. He began presenting the pieces, which came to be known as "vegan taxidermy," in public spaces. Eventually he began to create dioramas, which he would photograph. So, for instance, 'Sassafrass' is a plush, furry dog standing on hind legs with an open mouth, sharp incisors, and golden horns, set against what looks like a prehistoric landscape. Or 'Eleanor—Trouble,' a scowling ratlike creature with a plush yellow hide taking a dump in the bushes.
Eventually he "followed a girl to Minneapolis," and found that his work was in an entirely different context because there were people who hunted—so they were at once more receptive and more suspicious of someone who called himself a vegan taxidermist. "So I got this beer sponsorship and got this room about as big as this and filled it with mulch and have chairs and table and give people beer during art crawls and people would be like 'what's for sale?' and I'd be like 'nothing. This is an installation.'" In the process, he met Sarina Brewer and Scott Bibus, both of whom are featured in the book. Brewer's pieces include 'Mother's Little Helper Monkey,' a grinning, fanged monkey with wings, a shriners hat, and a martini glass, and 'Jitterbug,' featuring two dancing muskrats. Bibus' work looks a bit more like what we typically associate with taxidermy—except there's a twist. The first piece Bibus ever made was a traditional-looking beaver eating a human thumb. Another piece features a realistic-looking turtle, except for the eyeball on its tongue. With Brewer and Bibus, Marbury founded the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART) in 2004 and developed a code of ethics. The organization quickly outgrew Minnesota and became an international organization for Rogue Taxidermists.
When MART held its first show, the New York Times covered it. "Now it was like all of a sudden, people were calling us with crazy requests. We got on AM Coast to Coast, it was like 'Oh my God, we win!,'" Marbury says, but he was also aware of everything he did not know. "It's like this trick of the internet: You have instant authority, but there are thousands of people who are doing this and it is a tradition very, very old and you can trace it back." In the book, he provides a gallery of historical figures ranging from Pliny to Méret Oppenheim, the surrealist who lined a teacup with fur.
It was this awareness of the tradition and a suspicion of his own instant authority that led Marbury toward actually working with animals. "After judging the taxidermy contests in Brooklyn every year, or almost every year, I'm like 'I have to learn some things.' Then for this [book], I had to learn brain tanning." He was married and living with wife in Baltimore by this time, and did not get a beetle colony, which some taxidermists use to clean bones.
"We have two squirrels in our house," Marbury says. "And my wife did the one that looks good."
Indeed, women are at the forefront of the Rogue Taxidermy movement. "Women are doing a lot of the work, the alternative work," Marbury says. "It used to be a masculine-only realm but it's not anymore."
Katie Innamorato, from New Paltz, New York, turns road kill into art. Often, the problem with road kill, in addition to a patchwork of laws governing how it can be used in various states, is the damage to the hide of the animal. Innamorato makes the most of this, using moss to patch the damaged fur and skin for a beguiling half-fur, half-moss effect on the face of a fox, for instance.
Iris Schieferstein, who works in Berlin, makes high-heeled shoes out of goats hooves and six-shooters or vaguely Damien Hirst-like pieces using wet preservation, while Claire Morgan, from London, creates large-scale installations which are, as Marbury puts it in the book, "about freezing time and space . . . by mounting organic matter on a gridlike matrix of invisible filaments, creating the impression that the fragile materials (dandelion seeds, leaves, dead flies) are suspended in midair. Caught within each piece is a taxidermy mount: a bird with wings outstretched, a skulking fox."
Also from London is Tessa Farmer, who creates intricate sculptures in which legions of cicadas, insects, and small sculpted fairies attack, say, a fox, as in 'Little Savages.' And Kate Clark, from Brooklyn, gives animal forms remarkably real-looking human faces which plumb the uncanny valley and all its attendant discomforts.
There are, of course, still a few men in the book. Portland's Peter Gronquist—whose sculpture of a deer whose horns are golden skeletons holding machine guns adorns the cover of the book—mixes animal forms with pop cultural references. And Rod McRae of Sydney, Australia puts animals in unsettling contexts, as in 'Operation Foxtrot,' which features a shopping cart full of foxes, or 'Crying Out Loud in the Age of Stupid,' in which a polar bear stands stranded on a white refrigerator.
However varied the work, all of the artists in the book recontextualize animal forms. And, however farflung the artists were, Marbury tracked them down, interviewed them, and watched them work. He kept his day job and on weekends and during vacation time he traveled around the world, often with little direction from the artists. He recalls traveling to the Netherlands to meet the collaborative duo The Idiots, whose work, such as a sleeping lion whose bottom half is made of gold blobs of varying sizes, utilizes luxury materials and exotic animals. “They were in Weesp, which was maybe an hour on the train, and we got off and hiked a mile down a highway, which clearly nobody walks, because everybody looks at us like we’re crazy, and there’s this woman wearing a pink jumpsuit and she says ‘I smell Americans’ and it’s The Idiots and they’re in a circus compound at the end of the line.”
Despite his efforts, Marbury’s only regret is that he couldn’t include more people in the book and envisions a second volume, given the movement’s growing popularity. As he puts the squirrel skin back in his knapsack, he pulls out a small plastic bag. Inside, are a series of photographs indicating that Marbury may have found the perfect animal with which to work. Recently, he has grown his hair—cranial and facial—in a variety of forms and photographed himself looking like various early presidents, such as Taft or Theodore Roosevelt.
In all of it is a love for what is "intriguing but not true," as he puts. "What I mean is that's not nature. It is a mental take on nature."