Taxidermy in Trouble, Part 2

AMC’s Immortalized is the competitive taxidermy show I’ve all been waiting for. Nothing reveals taxidermy’s artistry more clearly than watching four taxidermists with clipboards peer point blank into the eye of a wood duck. There’s as much pawing at the goods as at an AKC dog show. What I learned from spending three days at the World Taxidermy Championships is that, while I was drawn to the enormous displays of megafauna posed with backdrops and dioramic elements, to a taxidermy judge, size does not matter.

How peculiar, then, to find that the theme for the premiere episode of Immortalized was “Size Matters”.

The show’s Iron Chef with dead animals. Swap out Iron Chefs for “Immortalizers” (two of whom are rogue taxidermists, one of whom will not be mentioned by name in these posts), the “secret ingredient” for the “theme”, and rather than watch taxidermists do their work within an hour, “send” them home to do their work while a camera crew records it. There are three judges. One is Paul Rhymer, former (alas) head taxidermist at the Smithsonian, and a man so tall I had to lift my chin upward to look him in the eye. Another is Catherine “The Diva of Death” Coan, a non-founding member of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists—an organization only nominally Minnesotan that helps promote the work of rogues around the world. The third is comedian Brian Posehn.

Why is it Brian Posehn? Why a comedian? The show’s host, Zach Selwyn, has released four comedy albums, the latest of which is titled Moose Knuckle. Comedian Blaine Capatch is listed as a “creative consultant”. I laughed exactly twice during the premiere. First was in surprise when Posehn was introduced. Second was during the judges’ critique, when Posehn lauded the work of the challenger—a man who poses insects in fancy tableaux (more on this in a bit)—by saying, “How crazy it is, having a guy being tied down by bugs. It reminds me of a party at Andy Dick’s house.”

This is the show’s only moment of intended humor. Taxidermy is too often a laughable enterprise (see yesterday’s array of crappy taxidermy blogs), and those of us interested in it sometimes need to work to make it appear as something interesting and honorable. Immortalized does this with a deathful seriousness (Do low strings play furiously à la Survivor‘s tribal council before the judges’ verdict is spoken? Absolutely. Is that decision delayed by multiple quick closeups? Yes.) that becomes laughable and drains from taxidermy all of its fun and joy.

But in lots of ways Immortalized isn’t even a show about taxidermy. For starters, the premiere challenger is an affable family man who gets dried bugs in the mail and poses them on and around dollhouse furniture. Art from dead animals? Yes. The practice of taxidermy? No way. Whether you’re rogue or traditional, the magic of taxidermy lies in the way the (essentially) 2-D skin becomes the 3-D mount. The bug guy’s Immortalizer was Beth Beverly, a rogue. “Immortalized centers on the art and craft of taxidermy,” claims the show’s Web site. That AMC chose this episode as its premiere shows that it’s the art, the vision, that takes center stage over the craft.

And good. Taxidermy, it’s worth arguing, is an artform. But without an understanding of the craft, the glory of the art goes solely to product, not process. In taxidermy, process is paramount, because therein lies the intimacy. To mount a deer well, you need to look at a hell of a lot of deer. Every taxidermist worth his cornmeal has pages and pages of deer photos in a binder—his references. He finds the right head angle he wants and he stares at what’s going on with the neck and shoulder muscles. He looks at the eye he’s building very closely and for a very long time. It doesn’t sound like an act of communion but it is.

Immortalized does work to show some craft elements. I didn’t know dried dead bugs could be rehydrated and posed. We see Beverly recard the tailfin of a fish to make sure it dries crisply. This fishtail she attaches to the torso, shoulders, front legs, and head of a friend’s housecat named Mr. Smart. There are some feathersplit birdwings attached to the cat’s back. The whole creature is propped up by little supports and trusses. The idea, we’re told, is that this creature’s parts don’t fit together. Size matters for functionality, is the idea. Like: if only this creature had the right-sized fishtail it would be have better posture.

Rhymer and Posehn both thought the piece did a poor job of fitting the theme. (The rogue judge thought they were crazy.) But of course it does. The problem with size when it comes to rogue work is that rogues work only on what they can scavenge—dead pets, roadkill, mice frozen as snakefood. To ask a rogue to mount a moose for you is to ask for a lecture on ethical treatment of animals. I’ve got way more to say on this tomorrow, but for now I’ll point out how, to me, the theme was overlooked for the vision: monster-making. Here’s an AMC exec:

“The show really is on a macro level about taxidermy as an art form as opposed to the way it’s usually presented, as this oddity. The goal will be to walk away thinking that it’s a fine art in the way you would evaluate any traditional form of sculpture.”

Nothing is odder than Beverly’s piece, and sculpture is evaluated on its use of materials as much as anything.

Beth Beverly is introduced on air as “a taxidermy champion seven times over.” “I’m the best at what I do because no one else can do what I do,” she claims. Beverly specializes in hats made from animal parts. (Mostly birds. Once, bumptiously, a fox scrotum.)

You can find no one else’s bird hats here, here, and here. According to her bio on the Web site, “she has won awards at the Devon Ladies Day Hat Competition, Brandywine Polo Club and Radnor Hunt Club.” Nothing about whether it’s seven awards, and nothing anywhere about competing at the Pennsylvania State Taxidermy Championships, much less the Nationals. There’s footage in the premiere of her wearing knee high black boots, in front of the Philly Art Museum, doing the Kid ‘n Play Kickstep. She’s graduated from the Pocono Institute of Taxidermy, in 2010. She’s a member of M.A.R.T., but not a founding member.

Here’s what the cat-end of her piece looks like:

And here are the paint and carding jobs on the fishtail:

That the animal doesn’t look like a real animal is the ostensible point, but that the animal parts don’t look like real animal parts is the problem. The greater problem being that nobody calls this out as a problem.

Indeed: Beverly won the competition (with, to the judges’ credit, a 73 out of 90). On Immortalized, and in the world of rogue taxidermy today, a shitty job carding a tailfin or setting an eye does not reek of amateurism, it carries the whiff of authenticity. We’ve seen so much bad Victorian taxidermy, or good Victorian taxidermy decayed over time, that crappy work looks for roguework somehow more accurate. As I said yesterday: it becomes more about taxidermy itself than about the animal that died. That Coan allowed this to pass is expected, but that Rhymer did feels like a betrayal. It’d be like Mario Batali giving overdone pasta a pass without comment.

It’s very hard to mount an animal so that it looks like an animal. It takes lots of training and practice and care. It takes time and intimacy. But the taxidermy star-cycle (such as it now even exists) doesn’t provide for such time. There are expert rogues out there, but for whatever reason you won’t find them on Immortalized. Instead, it’s TV- and press-ready rogues who get a pass on expertise because of their vision.

Nevermind that it’s the vision of a preteen. One older than museum taxidermy itself.

(TOMORROW: the lies behind ethically sourced taxidermy.)

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