Fun with Taxidermy in Sacrificial Lamb
through Feb 8
Lethal Amounts Gallery, Los Angeles
By Jennifer Susan Jones
In late-nineteenth-century England, Montagu Browne had a section of his book, Practical Taxidermy, entirely devoted to “mirth-provoking characters” – animals presented anthropomorphically, such as crows playing the violin, squirrels as Romeo, and frogs doing all sorts of things such as the cancan and lying in a hammock. Queen Victoria was said to have delighted in these amusing specimens, and soon every middle class English home had an ornamental mount on display (Milgrom, M., Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, 2010).
Fast forward one hundred or so odd years, and although most of the animals we keep in our American homes today are living, our fascination with human-like creatures (think ‘talking animal’ movies, realistic-looking animal Halloween masks for humans and, conversely, Halloween costumes for pets) is alive and well.
The Sacrificial Lamb exhibition at Lethal Amounts Gallery in downtown Los Angeles, which opened to a very enthusiastic crowd on January 13, indulges this animal attraction, hitting the sweet spot of enchantment with forty specimens flung from the colorful loins of the zoos of Wonderland. Once inside the gallery, you’ll be smitten with the motionless menagerie, first landing at the hooves of Brooke Weston’s “Ram’s Rest” a full body taxidermy whose tummy kisses the earth in a bond where beast is blended with a lichen-rich substrate, absorbing the moss-green color on which it sits, as if the forest essence were sipped up through unseen straws. Cavities pepper the ram’s body – including one carved into its horn – and miniatures are seen therein, provoking one to crouch-and-lean for closer inspection. A beautiful creature in its own right, the ram is regal, elegant, yet here (bonus) it meshes with the forest in perfect camouflage, wherein it is a fully functional residence for fairies and smallish mammals, who we imagine skittering about the diminutive domiciles (so daintily decorated and supplied with pint-sized creature comforts such as fireplaces, plush couches, and wrought iron railings skirting playful balconies). In a second Weston piece, a Coney Island/sideshow themed mount titled “Red Sea,” the artist has placed port holes in the ram and encrusted them with tiny handmade barnacles. Peer into the interior space and discover a Fiji mermaid fashioned from a wee fish, and a two-headed cow head mount you won’t find hanging in Barbie’s Dream House.
Being skilled as a taxidermist is a unique talent that is generally misunderstood. “You have to have respect and intuition for the animals to bring out their best characteristics,” says David Schwendeman, retired chief taxidermist for the American Museum of Natural History. “You have to have the delicate finesse of a watchmaker, and the brute strength of a blacksmith.”
“More than anything,” participating taxidermy artist Amber Keithley states on her website, “it means the world to me to have an occupation that feels tailored just for me.” Amber has indeed found her calling, a fact paramount in “Lollipop” wherein the bearded fat lady – a rotund white rat holding a slice of cake in one ‘hand’ and a lollipop in the other – bulges at the (unseen) seams while wearing an expression – yes, an expression – of relish and guilty pleasure. Keithley, whose goal is for every animal to reach its artistic potential, also portrays the iconic magician’s white rabbit in “Hare Houdini” wherein the subject enjoys a reversed role, the waist-up half of him holding a black top hat in one hand and a freshly plucked, blood-leaking doll’s head in the other. And though we imagine this rabbit hopping from the set of The Twilight Zone: Magic Castle series, he was ethically sourced from a licensed facility in California.
Keithley’s carnival-themed works are plum-full of humorous narratives starring her various animals, one particular piece featuring two tiny, white, conjoined mice holding three umbrellas that are perfectly placed in their adorable paws. Showcased atop vintage, slightly distressed cookie tins, the artworks are charming in their contexts, and “close-up ready” in their craftsmanship. Such are the whiskers on the white mice, each spread in perfect parallel to the next, a dainty wisp below the protruding (and surprisingly lifelike) beady black eyes.
Los Angeles-based sculptor and jewelry designer Ave Rose features a selection of her “Taxidermy Automata” body of work in this show: pieces that up the mischief/mystique ante by animating when wound up or switched on. Inviting the viewer to engage with her work, the cordial artist welcomed questions and curious interplay from reception attendees, her generosity reciprocated with enchanted smiles and gasps of happy surprise. Sporting lace-trimmed clothing and vintage jewelry adornments, Ave’s pieces, which include “Lady Vanity” and “Fish Outta Watta,” are portals to childhood, vessels transporting viewers back to the wondrous time when the division between reality and fantasy was as gauzy as an antique wedding veil. “People seem to enjoy my sculptures like children enjoy toys,” Ave states on her website, and in these tumultuous times, couldn’t we all use more play time?
Taxidermy, as described in Milgrom’s ‘Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy,’ is the “art of taking an animal’s treated skin and stretching it over an artificial form such as a manikin, then carefully modeling its features in a life-like attitude.” In Greek, taxis is “arrangement” and derma is “skin,” the standout feature of the hobby/trade being its magical mix of art, science, and theater, an “incomparable tool for displaying the wonder and beauty of animals, particularly rare bird species for natural history cabinets – the private collections of natural wonders and oddities that gave rise to modern museums.”
Curated by New York taxidermist Divya Anantharamana, who describes Sacrificial Lamb as a show that “combines the craft of traditional taxidermy with a contemporary focus on including new perspectives in this type of art,” here you’ll find top talent in the art of animal and avian preservation, this category of the trade sometimes referred to as “rogue” or “fantasy” taxidermy. Interpretations of nature abound, the spectrum of subjects spanning adorable to alarming, some donning embellishments aplenty, others sans decor. Divya stated after the opening that her foremost goal was to “spotlight contemporary perspectives on taxidermy” and what an eclectic and glorious showcase it is, full of creatures great and small – insects to standing deer – some wearing the fur and feathers mother nature gave them, others stripped to their ornate armature of bone, the latter’s ivory supports true testaments to the web of wonders within.
As a lover of carnivals and circuses, it is fitting to quote iconic fantasy writer Ray Bradbury in closing: “Stuff your eyes with wonder,” he said. “Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds.” Obey the Ray and see Sacrificial Lamb, where the dead will continue to delight and enthrall through February 8, 2018. Visit lethalamounts.com and click on “Sacrificial Lamb Taxidermy Art Show – Meet the Artists” for fabulous interviews with six of the participating artists. All animal artifacts in the show are sourced in legal and sustainable ways, i.e. roadkill, naturally deceased animal donations, discards from food, etc. NO ANIMALS WERE HARMED FOR THE SAKE OF THIS ART SHOW.
The artists featured in Sacrificial Lamb include Brooke Weston, Amber Keithley, Ave Rose, Emi Slade, Catherine Coan, Divya Anantharamana, Emily Binard, Jennie Jones, Erika Harada, Gigi Arroyo, Helen Kairo, Jenn Cortes, Katie Innamorato, Kimberly Bunting, Marxidermy, Sarah Dolezal, Tanis Ramsay, Paul Koudounaris, Haus of Syn, and Wyeth Moss.