THE ROGUE REVOLUTION ~
Taxidermy Art; from Counterculture to Pop Culture
October 2022 marks the 18-year anniversary of the birth of a genre of pop-surrealist art dubbed "Rogue Taxidermy". The genre was the brainchild of Sarina Brewer and her two colleagues, Scott Bibus and Robert Marbury. Together the trio spearheaded an art movement that continues to gain momentum exponentially. Since its inception the genre has proven to be as controversial as it is contagious; images of this unique variety of work now saturate every corner of the internet. And it started a revolution.
The introduction of Rogue Taxidermy created a trend in the art world that changed the perception and assumptions about taxidermy, not only in galleries, but also in contemporary aesthetics. Its presence in galleries has carried over into popular culture, as attested to by the countless home decor magazines and shop window displays that now include taxidermy elements. The trio's experimental and unorthodox use of taxidermy materials, coupled with their ethical reframing of them, jump-started a taxidermy revival in North America and laid the foundation for what has since exploded into a global phenomenon. Taxidermy is now enjoying a universal level of popularity that it hasn't experienced since the Victorian era.
"Rogue Taxidermy" is a term interchangeable with "Taxidermy Art". It's a genre of contemporary art which is sometimes incorrectly described as an offshoot or subcategory of traditional taxidermy. Neither the term nor the genre emerged from the world of traditional taxidermy. The genre was born from forms of fine art that utilize some of the same elements found in conventional taxidermy. The genre was invented as a means to unite various styles of existing work into a singular category. The definition of "Rogue Taxidermy", as set forth by the founders of the art movement, is "A genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy-related materials that are used in an unconventional manner".
Understanding what a traditional taxidermy mount is constructed out of is fundamental to understanding the aforementioned definition of Rogue Taxidermy. There are several varieties of conventional taxidermy and it's comprised of a lot more materials than meets the eye. Animal hide is an obvious material, however some other examples of "taxidermy-related materials" are bones, mummified remains, and synthetic taxidermy components such as faux fur and prefabricated urethane foam taxidermy mannequins . Sculpture constructed entirely from synthetic taxidermy materials still constitutes rogue taxidermy, as can sculpture created entirely from animal bones.
For a sculpture to qualify as Rogue Taxidermy its main component must be some sort of taxidermy-related material, however it can be used in conjunction with other materials that are not taxidermy related. Artists working under the moniker of Rogue Taxidermy create sculptures using all varieties of materials; glass, metal, paper, ceramics, stone, found objects, etc. They then combine these materials with elements borrowed from the world of conventional taxidermy. A vast range of works can be classified as rogue taxidermy. The end result is not required to be a figurative three dimensional representation of an animal's body, it can be abstract. The genre encompasses everything from small decorative objects to room-sized installations and conceptual art to wearable art.
Per the wordage of the aforementioned definition of the genre; a Jackalope can be considered rogue taxidermy because "taxidermy-related materials" are being presented in an "unconventional manner", however, rogue taxidermy is not merely defined as fictional animal hybrids or anthropomorphic mounts. This misnomer resulted from improperly researched press articles that exploited the sensationalistic aspect of making art out of dead animals, largely ignoring artists within the genre creating work with synthetic taxidermy materials. The pigeonholing and inaccurate portrayal of the genre has led to the term becoming somewhat bastardized in recent years. In actuality, rogue taxidermy refers to a broad spectrum of styles. Works encompassed within the genre run the gamut from whimsical mounts created in pop-up taxidermy classes, to works exhibited in art museums.
[click here to see examples of work that exemplifies the diversity of the genre ]
BIRTH OF A GENRE ~
The History of Rogue Taxidermy
The Rogue Taxidermy art movement began in Minneapolis Minnesota. It is here that the term was coined and the genre was conceived. In 2002 a Minneapolis-based artist named Scott Bibus discovered the unusual taxidermy sculptures of Sarina Brewer on the internet. Upon learning she was also based in Minneapolis, the two arranged a meeting to discuss their respective work. Soon thereafter Bibus introduced Brewer to local artist Robert Marbury who fashioned creatures from recycled stuffed toys, faux fur, and urethane taxidermy mannequins. The styles and themes these three artists were working with had nothing to do with one another, however, upon seeing Marbury's work Brewer realized their work all subtlety shared one attribute; they all utilized taxidermy-related materials in some fashion. This concept is the foundation of the genre and how it would later be defined.
Upon this realization, Brewer approached Marbury with her observation. She suggested the trio put together a group art exhibition that tied their respective styles together using taxidermy-related materials as the common denominator. Marbury liked the proposal and in short order orchestrated their inaugural exhibition. On October 15th, 2004, they presented their three styles as a singular category of work. They titled their show "Rogue Taxidermy". It was a term conceived of by Brewer several years prior to their collaboration that had laid dormant until Bibus resurrected it during an interview. The show was hosted by Creative Electric Studios, an influential gallery in the Minneapolis Arts District in the early 2000's.
The groundbreaking exhibition received generous press, including the front page of the New York Times art section. Images from the show went viral, making Rogue Taxidermy a household name virtually overnight. Response to the work was overwhelming. There was such massive interest within the art community following the show that shortly thereafter the trio decided to form an online artist collective built around their style of work so that artists working in the same realm could network with one another. Robert Marbury set up a website and the trio began recruiting artists from around the world to unite under the umbrella of Rogue Taxidermy. They chose the tongue-in-cheek name "Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists" (M.A.R.T.). Contrary to the name, MART was not an association of taxidermists, nor was membership limited to Minnesota. The group was a consortium of international artists, all utilizing taxidermy-related materials in different ways.
LANDSCAPE CHANGING PHILOSOPHY ~
The Ethics Platform of the Art Movement
The cornerstone of the Rogue Taxidermy art movement is its first-of-a-kind "no kill, no waste" philosophy. Prior to the inception of the genre of rogue taxidermy, never before in history had taxidermy been associated with the humane sourcing of animals – Taxidermy had only been associated with the killing of animals. A prerequisite for MART membership was agreeing to adhere to an edict mandating no animals could be killed for the sake of art. Members were to obtain their materials only from sources such as roadkill, natural deaths, casualties of the pet trade, destroyed nuisance animals, and discarded livestock and wild game remnants. Recycling as many parts of the animal as possible during the art making process was also championed in the group's code of ethics which stated "nothing that was once living should be taken for granted". These precepts were woven into the philosophical framework of the group by Brewer, who brought the core principles of her art with her when guidelines for membership to the group were drawn up. MART's tenets were actively instilled into members, who in turn spread the doctrine via social media. A number of group members went on to teach classes in alternative-taxidermy, and in doing so, passed MART's moral code along to their students. Their students then spread these values within their own circles, and so on, and so on.
Via the power of the internet, MART's philosophy has spread across the globe in a religion-like fashion gathering fans, practitioners, and preachers. The group's ideology became the foundation of an art movement that is continually growing. It gathers followers who are not only interested in exploring new and unorthodox art materials, but those who are interested in experiencing animals in a new and intimate way. A way that was, up until very recently, taboo in most circles. In doing so, the movement has changed the definition of what can be considered an artistic medium and thus has expanded the boundaries of what can be categorized as art. More importantly, the genre has generated immeasurable dialogue about how we view death, about the various ways humans express reverence, and about the belief systems of individuals as well as those of groups. In doing so, the movement has also served as a lesson in tolerance and the making of space for practices misunderstood by dominant culture.
LIFE IMITATES ART ~
The North American Taxidermy Renaissance
The genre of Rogue Taxidermy changed the way Americans perceive taxidermy. No longer is taxidermy relegated to woodsy hunting lodges and gritty rural roadhouses. What was once seen as uncouth is now experiencing its zenith and taxidermy inhabits the trendiest eating establishments in Manhattan to the highest-end boutiques on Melrose Avenue. Its omnipresence is undeniable, even manifesting in the form of decorative objects that mimic iconic taxidermy staples (e.g., synthetic versions of the proverbial deer-head-on-the-wall). The transformative element was the ethics platform of the art movement. Without this key ingredient, the current taxidermy resurgence never would have occurred and taxidermy would have remained demonized along with the wearing of fur coats.
Fine artists promoting their use of humanely sourced materials, while describing what they created as an hommage to the animal, won public approval. "Dead animals" were now part of the art world. It was edgy and provocative, and it caught on like wildfire. What is hot in galleries influences mainstream artistic tastes just as the catwalks of New York City influence fashion. It was now socially acceptable to hang taxidermy-related art on your wall. Thus began the trickle-down and taxidermy's assimilation into pop culture. The genre's ethical practices broadened taxidermy's appeal and made it palatable to an entirely new demographic. A new brand of "guilt-free taxidermy" was born, attracting even those who were once opposed to it for moral reasons. An age-old stigma was neutralized. So much so, that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) reversed their decades-old stance and made the unprecedented statement during a CBC radio interview with Sarina Brewer that taxidermy is acceptable as long as the animal wasn't killed for that purpose. The art movement's emergence during a time of growing concerns for our planet has also paired perfectly with the Green Movement, and the genre has been further validated by its "waste not, want not" recycling aspect.
What were once radical ideas, and radical art materials, have finally been acknowledged by the world of contemporary art. The visionary work of MART opened a door that led to taxidermy gaining recognition as a legitimate medium to create fine art. Taxidermy-related art has taken over the global gallery scene and permeates mainstream decorating themes. In doing so, the genre has left an indelible mark on the history of art, and has forever changed the place taxidermy occupies in the American psyche.
THE ART FORM DEFINED ~