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North Woods Chimera

3vv-head-smalles.jpgAccording to Homer, the Chimera from ancient Greek legend had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and a serpent for a tail. The fire-breathing monster was said to have terrorized the Lycians of Asia Minor before being slain by Bellerophon.

In contemporary usage, the word chimera has lost its ferocity and refers to a mere illusion, an unrealistic fancy, a wild fabrication of the mind. The scientific meaning, however, highlights the ancient beast's genetic fusion: a chimera incorporates the genomes of more than one organism. For example, a bough from a peach tree graphed onto the stalk of a plum tree could be termed a chimera if both peaches and plums flourished on their separate limbs.

Sarina Brewer's North Woods Chimera is rather more provocative: three vulture heads sprouting from the body of a cat. Using only roadkill, donations from veterinarians, discarded livestock, and other already deceased animals, Brewer views her work as a form of resurrection by endowing carcasses and animal remains with a new life and a disturbing beauty. Co-founder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists along with Scott Bibus and Robert Marbury, Brewer aims to expand the imaginative possibilities of taxidermy by manipulating and transgressing the limits of the natural world. "I call it art," Brewer states, "you can call it whatever you want."

go to Brewer's website +


Grunfeld's Misfits

Thomas Grünfeld's anomalous creations are some of the strangest and most surreal of contemporary taxidermy. The creatures from his appropriately titled Misfit series are composed of bits and pieces of animals, all flawlessly sewn together to create entirely new species: a doberman pincher with a calf's head, a beast combining monkey and parrot, another creature, part mule, part giraffe, part ostrich.

The sixteenth-century mathematician Girolamo Cardono claimed that the only way to tell a genuine mermaid from a fake was examine its joints: a fake would inevitably have a seam betweenthe monkey top and fish bottom. But there are no visible seams on Grünfeld'smisfits. The beasts are as incredible and implausible as mermaids, and their most implausible attribute is their organicism - the sense that these wildly mismatched animal parts coalesce with an organic harmony. The Misfits could have seemed jerry-rigged together. They could have looked piecemeal and man-made (which of course they are) but instead the structural integrity of their parts convey a sense that these beasts are anatomically plausible, that they could actually exist, that they could actually function.

The Misfits are reminiscent of early natural histories in which strange and unfamiliar animals were described according to the bits and pieces of well known creatures. For example, the camelopard, now known as the giraffe, was described having the height and neck of a camel, the head of a stag although somewhat smaller, the teeth and feet of an ox, and a leopard's spots. The armadillo was a pig with a turtle's shell, and the sloth, part bear, part ape. The platypus displayed complete anatomical confusion, seeming to "possess a three fold nature, that of a fish, a bird, and a quadraped" as Thomas Bewick wrote in 1824. On inspecting the skin of a platypus for the first time in 1802, George Shaw, director of the British Museum, observed that it appeared to have "the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped." Such a hybrid animal seemed too strange to be true, and Shaw claimed that "it is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been some arts of deception in its structure." In fact the specimen Shaw examined still bears the marks from his efforts to prise the beak off. As Shaw highlights, it is only a small step from describing animals as if they were composite to actually making a new species.


Life can be so nice

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of taxidermy that makes new - and often woebegone - creatures from the parts of other animals.  I think much of such combinatory art uses animals as mere raw materials, manhandled for shock effect or to manifest the dark depths of the human imagination.  Perhaps this is just not my personal taste (I am hardly a fan of ghoulish aesthetics), but I think a certain respect is always due to the dead, animals included.  Of course, it could be argued that kittens wearing dresses or post-suicidal squirrels are equally disrespectful, misusing animals for humorous effect, yet at least these beasts are whole, recognisable, and retain their organic integrity.  But of course, with taxidermy everything is open for debate. 

Having said that, I must admit I find Iris Shieferstein's series "Life can be so nice" immensely compelling.  Little pigs, snakes, birds, and other small animals are combined into new species and posed to spell out a refrain from the Prince song "Life can be so nice."  Prince's lyrics are unambiguously blissful: "Kisses never lie when delivered / with milk from your lips / Morning glories never cry / My love for you baby drips / Life can be so nice / It's a wonderful world, sweet paradise / Kiss me once, kiss me twice / Life can be so nice, so nice / Life can be so nice."  Transmuted in animal flesh by Sheiferstein, the refrain becomes something different, not darker or sadder exactly, but filled with a searing sort of reality, a haunting enigmatic truth.  

All taxidermy renders animals immortal, and by that immortality they exist apart from us while still physically lurking in this world. Shieferstein's "Life can be so nice" wouldn't be the same if she had spelled the letters with "real" animals.  There is something extra that is conveyed by the fact that these are dream beasts, immortal dream beasts, which literally spell out a yearning for a simple paradise on earth.

Photographs by Stehpan Rabold.


wind-up baby crocodile

Taxidermist & sculptor Lisa Black combines taxidermy with working gears and other mechanical contraptions including, yes, a wind-up baby crocodile. You tell me what to think of this because, really, I've got no idea where to begin.

See more of her work here +







Robert Marbury's Urban Beast Project

mephisto1.jpgKnown as a vegan taxidermist, Robert Marbury documents the existence of little known wild and feral plush animals inhabiting our urban environments.  With tongue firmly in cheek, through his Urban Beast Project, Marbury hopes to garner attention and general concern for the plight of such strange creatures.  As he describes on his webpage: while most of the Urban Beasts exhibited on his site "have met the end of their species, it is our hope that with exposure and attention many other Beasts will be saved."

This little brown beast is the lesser Yeti or Mestipho.  "Mephisto has the identifying reddish-black hair covering his body and during his liftime his odor was almost unbearable to a new acquaintance." Despite his insane snarl, Mestipho is a gentle soul, a strict vegetarian, and severely endangered.

Check out all the other creatures: