Monday, December 27, 2010

Happy (Belated) Boxing Day

I had no intention of discussing Sarina Brewer of Custom Creature Taxidermy or MART in my blog. She has now posted a pointed comment and bio (see Some People DON’T Really Know the Difference Pt 3 12/19/10) that contains statements I feel warrant attention so the gloves are off.

Sarina wrote:
We are far from the first artists to work with taxidermy related materials, but we were the first to categorize it. It wasn't "Rogue Taxidermy" until we coined the phrase.

Long before she started calling non-traditional taxidermy “Rogue Taxidermy” and long before I was referring to taxidermy of animals dressed or posed like humans as “Anthropomorphic Taxidermy”, this sort of work was categorized broadly as Ornamental Taxidermy (1891 Horniday), and more specifically as Grotesque Work, Comical or Humorous, and Novelty Work. 

Sarina wrote:
Because of our efforts this variety of work is now recognized as its own genre in the mainstream art word [sic], even gaining enough attention to warrant an article on the front page of the New York Times art section.

Only the test of time will tell if her marketing strategy was effective in creating its “own genre” in the “mainstream art world”. I wonder if Sarina considers Damian Hirst, Thomas Grundfeld, Maurizio Catalan, Mark Dion, etc., “rogue” taxidermists and what they would think of that? She does refer to Walter Potter as a “rogue taxidermy pioneer” on her MySpace page but he is long since dead and can’t defend himself.

Sarina wrote:
Despite the fact you freely insult MART and its members in public forums, at the beginning of the year we decided to make a last ditch effort to build a relationship with you. We once again invited you to join the group and to participate in our group show at La Luz De Jesus that you reference, but you declined and continue to look down your nose at MART.

I don’t know what she’s referring to here about me"freely" insulting MART and its members and I'm totally confused by her muddled time frame. I started writing about Loved to Death in May 2009 but didn’t mention them by name until this Dec and even then did not describe them/her as a member of MART. I added MART history/reference to my website’s FAQ section in July 2009 after receiving an especially annoying email about my “rogue” taxidermy but this was still after her second invitation to "climb aboard":

Are you a Rogue Taxidermist?

No, I'm just an artist who personally practices taxidermy (the messy part) as my primary medium. 

"Rogue Taxidermy" was a phrase coined by 3 young Minnesota artists in August of 2004. The original co-founders of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermy(M.A.R.T.) are Scott Bibus, who makes fantastically detailed and well executed taxidermy that has a hardcore horror aesthetic; Robert Marbury, who creates mythic Urban Beasts from stuffed toys and then photographs them in their urban "habitats"; and Sarina Brewer, who makes well crafted sideshow-type gaffs and recreated mythological beasts, at very affordable prices. The first of her taxidermy efforts I saw were in 2002 or 3: traditionally posed squirrels with 2 heads or stapled patches of fur (a la Frankenstein) and sculptural "carcass art" made from the leftover remains.

You can join their "association" as a Working Member for a fee and benefits include promotion of your work on their website and in group shows. Their definitions of "taxidermy" and "taxidermist" are extremely broad: the work doesn't have to contain any natural materials and the member might be buying all of their materials on eBay and putting them together with hot glue. Current Working Members run the gamut from fine and original artists, such as Jessica Joslin and Jeanie M, to makers of crafty rubbish, ambitious copy-cats and goth concept vampires.

Taxidermy has been weird since it was invented. The notion of re-representing animals has a built in imaginative imperative. Many illustrious practitioners have followed their muse into fantastic and bizarre works. Like any other art form, practically everything has been done; all we can add is our contemporary cultural overlay. This is not particularly "rogue".

I think I give credit where credit is due. I love Scott Bibus’ work. I don’t really think of Robert Marbury’s work as taxidermy by any stretch of the imagination but I don’t have any strong feelings about it either way. Sarina’s Goth Griffins are stunning and her fanciful Capricorn is adorable and beautiful. She has also done work I consider nothing more than (artistically) pointless copies of others work. I don’t think it’s adding to any personal enquiry of creative exploration for others to start making Goth Griffins and Capricorns. And if someone did, would she buy her own argument that it was just work in the same genre? That it was nothing but inspiration?

As I stated previously, I do question the concept/purpose of creating groups like this. I find the self-serving, phony lifestyle presentation, overly orchestrated and commodified aspects kind of creepy. From some of the responses my posts have received it’s also looking to me like a fundamental part of being a “rogue” taxidermist is acceptance of a lack of self examination and boundaries on how your work might relate to work already done by others. Some members work is implied or claimed to be original one of a kind (OOAK), only inspired by Victorian taxidermists… until they get caught.

Sarina accuses me of thinking I have inspired everyone working in a similar vein. All I said was that upon first examination of LTDs work it seemed that they had seen my work/website. To go on and discover that they took numerous images from my site and were copying many others, including Mattel,  inspired me to write about about mindless concept sucking and the invention of fanciful back story. Let me repeat: Many of the MART members do outstanding and original work. I consider them artists, not “rogue taxidermists”. I also don’t believe that all the members buy into this New Genre theory but do recognize it for what it is: another, possibly effective, marketing tool...or as a means of self defense.

Sarina wrote:
Now we're learning you refused to join because we wouldn't give you preferential treatment with "honorary member" status.

“Now we are learning…”? BS! Sarina and I emailed about this very subject in Fall 2008. I had contacted her about purchasing a pickled specimen. Here are the relevant portions of that correspondence:

25 Oct 2008 12:20pm Sarina emailed:
It's really cosmic that you emailed me because I was going to email YOU! Here's what's up; The Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists is putting together a show for next fall at La Luz de Jesus gallery in LA. It's going to be an important show because it will be the first large exhibition in the U.S. showcasing only artists working with taxidermy/animal related materials. We're only including the best in the field so naturally your name was the first to come up. Is there any way we could coerce (or beg!) you to join M.A.R.T and participate in the show???? You can totally join for free. I know you get tons of great press on your own but the M.A.R.T website gets an enormous amount of traffic and it would be even more exposure for you and your beautiful work. Think it over and let me know when you get a chance (fingers crossed and holding my breathe that you'll say yes! ;)

25 Oct 2008 2:17pm Tia emailed:
I’d be quite interested in participating in the occasional show with M.A.R.T., especially in CA but would it be possible for me to “just” be an honorary member instead of full member and still participate? (“just” is in quotations because I would consider it a very high honor) I’ve always been ambivalent about exposure, strict self-definitions and especially with the concept of success and “belonging”.

29 Oct 2008 9am Sarina emailed:
The group has picked up a lot of steam recently and we have a whole slew of new members now, including artists working abroad. We are thrilled because this is what we were hoping for. The more members we have, the more strength we have. The more strength we have, the more seriously the mainstream art world looks at our work. Coining the phrase "Rogue Taxidermy" and thus creating a category for this type of work was the first step. Creating the group was the second step. Bigger steps could then follow, like our feature in the New York Times and Juxtapoz, There will continue to be more big steps, such as this show at la Luz de Jesus. Your work is beautiful and we'd love to have you join us in our mission. Our mission is to show the world that what we do is out of love for animals. And what we do is beautiful and respectful, not repugnant.

If you join us as a working member, your membership would be honorary in the same way a college gives notable individuals an honorary degree – we would like to give you a membership at no charge because we feel you deserve one. (we don't hand them out to just anybody – all of the other members paid a membership fee) Members are under no obligation to participate in shows or do anything at all. People join and put up a page on our site with a bio, some images, and a link to their website and/or MySpace page. We would LOVE to have you aboard as a working member (hopefully I'm on the same page – is that what you meant when you said you'd like to be an "honorary member? We can't actually list your name under the "honorary member" section because it would hurt the feelings of other members, sort of like we are playing favorites. The 2 artists currently listed under that category are people that influenced Robert and I in our formative years – the other person on the list is our web designer - he put himself in that category to be funny) Sorry, I'm digressing! (as I'm often known to do LOL) If you join, but decide later on that it's not your thing, you can always "un-join". I understand that some artists don't want to be grouped together with everyone and I respect their point of view. So can we sign you up???

29 Oct 2008 11:44 am Tia emailed:
Actually, I did mean Honorary Member as in being listed in the Honorary Member section. I understand and respect your concerns about making me an Honorary Member as opposed to a Working Member and I certainly don’t want any special consideration or favoritism. While I would love to show my support for MART and the MART philosophy, I just don’t see myself as a “rogue” taxidermist, so I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on the invitation of the free working membership.

I think that’s pretty clear. And for me, extremely lady-like!

Within this correspondence Sarina said: It's going to be an important show because it will be the first large exhibition in the U.S. showcasing only artists working with taxidermy/animal related materials.

I’m not sure if that is just innocent naivete or outright delusional thinking. It’s certainly presumptuous. In San Francisco in 1993 there was a group show of artists working with animal remains titled “Carcass” that was curated by Jeanie M and I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been others.

Sarina also wrote these snippets:
“It's extremely arrogant for any artist to think they have come up with something so original that no one else could possibly come up with the same concept on their own.”

I never said or thought that. I was only discussing what I discovered about Loved to Death.

“… I'm not quite sure why you think emerging artists have no right to be inspired by existing work like yours.”

That's ridiculous! (and did she actually intend to refer to LTD as an “emerging artist”? OMG, that makes - my - day!)

“You act as if anyone working within this genre is invading your turf.”

I think by "this genre" she means "rogue" taxidermy. I don't think my work has anything to do with "rogue" taxidermy.

And my personal favorite:
“Your elitist attitude, blatant territoriality, and unprovoked venomous remarks are uncalled-for, unprofessional, and quite frankly I'm embarrassed for you.”

Someone needs to put on their Critical Thinking Cap and their reading glasses! Regarding “blatant territoriality”, it seems that Rogue Taxidermy as a genre includes anything remotely related to the taxidermy trade that is other than traditional. Is dressing taxidermy mice a genre? No, it's specific to the practice of doing up animals as human animals. Are two-headed chicks a genre? No, they are specific to the practice creating animal fakes and frauds. Are mounting squirrel heads as miniature trophies a genre? No. Are Goth Griffins a genre? No. All of these are personal spins that individual artists have put on their work. (That's a compliment, Sarina.)

I feel that Sarina’s definition of “inspiration” is as broad as her definition of “taxidermy”.  I wanted to say that I don't accept "rogue" taxidermy as a genre at all but am starting to think I had that wrong: Really, I just don't accept Sarina's broad and fuzzy definition of rogue taxidermy.  From a critical perspective, Love to Death's work is definitely "rogue" taxidermy. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Postscript AKA Barbie Gone Wild!

I couldn't help adding a few more pix... it was like a glorious treasure hunt! Yippee!  Collect them ALL!

Finding these "inspirational" source materials was really quite easy. Barbie collectors tend to be methodically organized.  All it took was one dress that screamed "Queen of Hearts"...  NOW I'll get back to the studio,  Merry Christmas!

Scarlett O'Hara Barbie

Victorian Lady Barbie

Promenade in the Park Barbie

Monday, December 20, 2010

Some People... epilogue

I thought this subject was exhausted but today I received the following form post from my website:

"The images used on your most recent blog are our images, and are copyrighted as such. This is our one request for you to take them down, they are not public domain. If you do not, we will then go to Blogger and will continue with legal action. This is also slander and defamation. 
Thank you,  
Audra & Brennan Dance
Loved To Death"

I find it fascinating that they consider fully outfitted Mattel Barbie dolls (down to the accessories) with taxidermy heads and paws stuck on them as their intellectual property. Not to mention, images of cases from private collections and used with permission by me on my site are somehow in the Public Domain for their use to make their site more interesting.  

Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe slanderous comments must be false and to have your character defamed you have to actually start with a good reputation.

I presented two images of pieces they sold as original works next to the original source material (Mattel Barbies) as a critique and illustration of the use of non-original source materials.  Pretty sure that falls under the Fair Use clause.

Now, time for this girl to get back to her studio... and some other girl to get back to her glue gun.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Some People Really CAN'T tell the Difference Pt. 3

Well, this post is certainly long overdue! I started writing Pt. 3 at the end of May (2009!) and then got busy with other things. And then I just dropped the ball... several times... so some of the following is no longer true:  Like my backyard is no longer in my hometown of San Francisco and I have no idea if Dark Garden still carries the merchandise in question.

Here is what I found out: The company selling taxidermy jewelry at Dark Garden has a website and is all over the Internet on MySpace, Etsy, Facebook, twitter, eBay, etc. (and now has a physical "shoppe" in my own backyard.) The quality of the taxidermy and metal work is dependent on who actually did the work. It certainly wasn't them. Nothing that I could find there was especially unique, or inspired.

(Perhaps coincidentally, this company was started shortly after I showed the direction my taxidermy going with jewelry to a groovy new store that was opening but who never called me back. The shop opened and ended up stocking this cheaper, and what I feel is derivative, work and mind you:  they sought me out.) 

Some of what I discovered was truly appalling. Dressed up mice that are a total rip-off of Jeanie M's work. Human figures with animal heads, a little too reminiscent of my work for my taste (But only if my work had collided with Mattel's Barbie, and a lot of hot glue):
Queen of Hearts Barbie
(Oh - no - she - did - NOT!)
Evening Majesty Barbie
(Oh yes she DID!)

Painstakingly researched and prepared images swiped from my website decorating their MySpace page listed under "Who I would like to meet" but linking these images back to their commercial site instead of the source of the images:
(FYI, their My Space page was made private shortly after I started this blog)

Even more pilfered images filling their MySpace image folder of Victorian Taxidermy:
Every one of these images was taken from my website.  I love it that that they couldn't even bother to remove some of my pale yellow backgrounds!

I found this quote in one of their online bios: "We seek out obscure and unique materials to create Loved To Death items."  Hummm:
Pigeon heads available here.

 I guess this kind of knocks down the "obscure and unique  materials" theory. It also begs the question of the technical accuracy of the oft repeated blanket statement that "no animals have ever been killed for use in our work".  I think they left off the salient bit about "by us". (Weenie Apologists in my book, but that's the subject of a future post.)  

This quote from an interview that was done after I started blogging on this subject: "What is the best piece of advice you can give other artists?" "Copyright your work! Also strive to be original. It is one thing to be inspired by someone else's work, and another to take someone else's idea and knock it off. Only a true artist knows the difference."

Gosh, do you think they saw me coming?

I find the commercial aspects of their website extremely distasteful: Links between their merch are labeled 'previous product' and 'next product' and everything has an 'add to cart' button and a 'quantity' button. Did they really have to trademark their common phrase business name?  It's all just so patently phony and Marketing 101 and yet they constantly refer to themselves as "artists". 

Working with taxidermy has become very trendy and hip over that last six years or so and some of the work currently being produced is original and absolutely fabulous. Unfortunately, too many are just jumping on the bandwagon and only re-digesting work that we've already seen. Even more unfortunate is that most people DON'T know the difference and actually believe that these folks are doing something original or even well crafted. I suppose it's a testament to their vigorous and aggressive Internet marketing techniques (and lack of moral integrity).

You could say that all is fair in a capitalist society but I'm amazed by the shamelessness of those who claim Victorian influences like Potter and Ploucquet but patently avoid giving proper credit to obvious contemporary influences and have the nerve to make arrogant statements such as "Much like the Victorians before us..." Especially when they give the outward impression of being ├╝ber-hip/counter-culture/goth-ier than thou/anti-establishment types. But I suppose one shouldn't be surprised by this kind of behaviour coming from anyone who feels (repeatedly) compelled to combine words to create phrases like "genuine taxidermy". On second thought, it would probably be far more devastating if they did refer to you as an 'influence'!

Clearly, few people think twice about sucking concepts and stealing images and research from the Internet without credit. (It's especially amusing when they swipe research details but still can't get their historic facts straight. Do I hear a flurry of desperate scrambling?)  Equally annoying are those who embellish/manufacture their credentials and pad their dates to pass themselves off as somehow more legitimate.

I ask myself, "Now, why can't you just be nice?" and "what's the point of all this cranky, whiny ranting?" Is it just envy over their apparent success? One thing I know for certain: I am loath to share images of my new work lest it be considered fair game for being "drawn" from the same "resource pool". I think the only way to avoid being sucked and buried is to first exhaust all concept variations (how long would that take and is it even possible?) and then to hire a high-end PR firm for representation. I'm truly at a loss and miss discussing my work with other artists. These days one can't even casually mention a specific material on a blog without it becoming instant Crafty Fodder.

Hey, I had the opportunity to get greater exposure (and potential financial success) with a group show at a gallery that I thought I would do anything to get into. Unfortunately, inclusion had nothing to do with the quality or medium of work and everything to do with accepting a (secretly free) membership to a new group that i didn't feel I belonged with.  My work was wanted if I appeared to be a paying joiner but not enough if it meant being given an honorary membership, which are apparently reserved for less threatening? influences.  Point being (and whining aside), I have no problem accepting responsibility for the choices I have made.

As far as I'm concerned, Jeanie M is the mouse girl and Mark Frierson was the resurrectionist who brought back gaffed two-headed chicks and ducklings. Sure, dressing animals as humans and creating gaff freaks has been done before but why would you want to just copy others and go into mass production instead of putting your own personal (and significant) spin on it? (oh yeah, to make money, duh)

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Some People Really CAN'T tell the Difference Pt. 2

I walked into Dark Garden and introduced myself as a classmate of one of their employees and ask to see the taxidermy jewelry they carry. The sales clerk led me to an ornate display case. Now, let's just say I was hugely relieved... no, let's not. I was absolutely giddy with relief because there was just no comparison.

And why would I care anyway? Well, I've been an artist for 30 years, doing taxidermy has been my passion for 11 years and the market for quality work is relatively small. I've also had more than my fair share of concepts sucked over the years and I do get depressed and dismayed when people tell me that my work reminds them of so and so's (who was a teacher's aid in one of my classes and who got a Guggenheim grant with a very detailed idea of mine) or that they have seen work "just like that". In the past I would just sink into a depression and stop working... sometimes for years. This time I decided to write about it instead.

There was a partially dressed pigeon head that made me suspect that whoever was making this stuff had seen my work/website but this bird looked like it had been scraped off the street and had a rhinestone or synthetic gem glued into the eye cavity and the metal bits on the other stuff were mass-produced, stamped brass victorian reproductions. And that's perfectly okay. I'm sure there is a market for this quality/price point that I would never be able, nor want, to satisfy. I got the name of the company and planned further research online.

Back to the shop experience. Dark Garden is filled with gorgeous clothing. Very romantic and costume-y. Reminiscent of Mrs Haversham's wedding table.

I spot a lovely long coat and say how beautiful I think it is. The sales clerk say's something to the effect of it looking even better on and why don't I try it on. I can feel the covet factor starting to kick in as my hand reaches uncontrollably out for the price tag. $350.00. My hand retracts and I say 'I better not, this is the sort of thing I would get myself as a reward for losing 30lbs.' to which the sales clerk comments 'Well personally, I think people should be comfortable in their bodies,' in a very judgmental, some might say, snotty, tone.

My head started to reel and I wanted to flee. (I've had problems with panic attacks and there have been times when I wouldn't leave my house for months on end. I was once stuck in bed for a month and would vomit and sweat when I tried to get up.) I controlled my breathing and and tried to explain that I was comfortable in my body, (not wanting to go into details like how I unattractive I think I am but am perfectly resigned to the fact or how I prefer to spend my limited resources on art supplies and antique taxidermy) and I'm thinking why should I have to explain myself and for f*ck sake, you work in a CORSET shop, when she adds, 'and besides, what happens when you gain the weight BACK?" WOW! Business must be really good for her to be so insulting and rude!

She then has a light bulb moment: She asks, sweetly this time, if I've ever tried a corset. I tell her that I have a corset and she asks if it's one of theirs. I say no, I have one made by Puimond. And all hell broke loose.

This woman swoops out of the back room (who I later learn is the shop owner) and starts ranting about how awful Puimond's work is, how he doesn't understand women's bodies because he's a man and how much longer she has been making corsets. Mortified, all I could think of to say was 'Well, I like my Puimond corset!' and she flies, just as abruptly, out the room. I think I was just told that I have rotten taste in corsets and as much as I really want to bolt now I was determined that I wasn't going to be intimidated by these frightful women.

I told the sales clerk that Puimond was actually a friend of mine and that, frankly, I did think that his construction was actually better than theirs. Uh. oh. What did I mean by that? I pointed out that the corset that they had on (prominent) display behind the counter had obvious crooked seams. Her answer (excuse?) was that that corset was 10 years old. Okay, whatever. So I stroll around and look at a few newer corsets to satisfy my curiosity (and to force myself to hold some ground). It just so happens that every one I looked at had crooked seams and some loose threads. They were still pretty and I certainly wouldn't mind owning a few of their skirts and that coat (except that I don't think I could bear setting foot in that shop ever again).

Thinking it's finally safe to leave, I go to the counter to say goodbye to the clerk when the owner returns to "apologize" for being so "intense" about her comments about Puimond and that she really just wanted me to know that Puimond had actually approached her at some event and told her what an influence she had been to him. She looked so stricken, like a deer caught in the headlights, that I didn't feel comfortable making eye contact and just mumbled something about Apples and Oranges. And left.

I'm not at all surprised that Puimond would be gracious. His manners are as impeccable as his stitching. I'm not calling Dark Garden corsets rubbish. I think their designs are beautiful but their craftsmanship is only average in my opinion. Puimond's skills are almost supernaturally precise.

BTW, my Puimond corset fits like a glove and some people really can't tell the difference between apples and oranges and I still wish that I could magically lose 30lbs... and then get another Puimond corset.

Stay tuned for the finale, pt 3.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Some People Really CAN'T tell the Difference Pt. 1

A few years ago I cobbled together a sterling and red coral necklace with a canary head. I have wanted to do taxidermy jewelry for years but wanted to wait until I had some decent metalsmithing skills so my starting point would be closer to the quality of Victorian era taxidermy jewelry. I didn't want to make rubbish taxidermy jewelry of the sort that some will remember from the 80's punk scene and is starting to crop up again now in the goth scene.

I got into my first metalsmithing class in January, which I'm loving. Learning to solder with a torch is a huge challenge but I'm looking forward to finally realizing some of the ideas I've had. I adore my teacher, Steven L. Smith. He provides the perfect balance of letting you learn from your mistakes (almost taking a perverse pleasure in allowing students to take themselves just to the brink of despair) and being present and supportive.

The first assignment was to saw, file and finish a personal logo. I did a 2 faced, hydrocephalic calf (wearing a crown as a nod to the animal enchantments that captured my imagination as a child) out of bronze. The (antique ready-made) bezel that dangles from it contains a piece of my son's amniotic membrane under glass. Most people guess that it's amber.

I brought my canary necklace and a stillborn kitten face I had done in to show the teacher what I had in mind. My new friend in this class, K., called over another long-time student to see my work. This other student (who shall remain nameless) makes an admirable and time consuming effort of pulling off a kind of goth/grunge? look. (I'm not sure if "grunge" is correct, she's a white girl with a lot of grungy looking dreadlocks) Anyway, it's A Lot of Look and very cute. (I'm also truly impressed that she hasn't spontaneously combusted working so close to flames) Unfortunately, her social skills leave much to be desired. She's pointedly unfriendly and extremely dismissive. Her only comment was "We have stuff just like that in our shop." (She's a seamstress at a local corset shop)

So I stopped by Dark Garden on my way home. I had no idea that I was about to step into the most Unpleasant Retail Experience of my Life. Seriously.