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Tag Archives: Natalie Ryan

Taxidermy & Contemporary Art

Troy Emery’s exhibition “from far away” at Craft Victoria reminded me that taxidermy and contemporary art are currently very close at least in Melbourne. Not that Emery uses any real animals in his work – he creates unreal animals. Troy Emery covers high density foam taxidermy mannequin with a rainbow of polyester pom poms, or in the case of from far away, a small dog form covered in rayon tassels. From far away is the star of the show, although the bear is bigger. There are some good visual gags in his work, the small dog, Listening, a reference to the dog on the label of His Masters Voice (HMV). (You can see the taxidermy art of Troy Emery on Art Nation on the ABC.)

As if I needed reminding that taxidermy and Melbourne contemporary art are currently very close after visiting “Melbourne Now” at the NGV. Greeting visitors on the stairs is the automated waving taxidermy cat by Greatest Hits collective, Untitled 2012.

Julia de Villa’s installation, Degustation at Melbourne Now is over the top and great. There is so much detail, the inlayed red glittering ‘blood’ on the cutlery; her jewellery studies at RMIT proving useful. The baroque paintings on the walls of the room emphasis the baroque sense of popularism, sensationalism and spectacle in de Villa’s art. I spent sometime in there sketching and looking at the layout of Degustation – making use of the elegant sketching materials provided by the NGV.

I could include Natalie Ryan’s flock covered taxidermy mannequins and Marion Drews’s haunting photography of roadkill into this survey. I keep on thinking about why taxidermy is big at the moment. Not forgetting that there is a big difference between the gothic splendour and horror of de Villa’s taxidermy of real baby animals and Emery’s or Ryan’s entirely fake use of taxidermy mannequins.

There is something kitsch or corny or sentimental about most taxidermy; these are aesthetics that modernism eschewed but are now being explored again. Taxidermy is from another time, a recent but largely forgotten past when hunting was admired, before Bambi, The Deer Hunter and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

I have done some taxidermy in my time; in the mid-1970s I went on a tour of the Zimmerman taxidermy factory in Nairobi Kenya. Zimmerman’s was huge, they would taxidermy anything, including elephants. The smell of the tanning animal hides was truly obnoxious (I am not surprise that Julia de Villa is a vegan). For me the smell was tempered with the revelation that they were making clay models to cast forms for insides of the animals. (For more on Zimmerman Ltd see Nairobi’s The Daily Nation.)

Is ‘mannequin’ really the right word given that these are animal forms?

P.S.  The mix of taxidermy and contemporary is not just a Melbourne phenomena there is the British artists Polly Morgan and Tessa Farmer, works mostly with dead insects but may be some taxidermy amongst her work. In 2010 the Museum of Art and Design in NYC had an exhibition: ”Dead or Alive- Nature becomes Art” that featured over 30 artists who used organic material in the art; feathers, bones, silkworm cocoons, plant materials, and hair. It did include some taxidermy art with American artist, Keith W. Bentley’s Cauda Equina, 1995-2007 but there was more work with animal and bird skeletons in the exhibition. (Thanks Tanya)

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Rennie + Ryan @ Dianne Tanzer

Cold, grey and damp, the winter sky over Fitzroy was as dull as the art that I was seeing that day. Then I entered Dianne Tanzer’s gallery and saw the combined exhibition of Natalie Ryan and Reko Rennie. And it wasn’t just the bright colours of the art that raised my spirits. Natalie Ryan and Reko Rennie are both artists who have become notable this year. Reko Rennie is a Aboriginal artist with a stencil street art background; he is now presenting on the ABC’s Art Nation. And there is a video about Natalie Ryan’s work from the ABC’s Art Nation. Animals are the subject for both of these artists and this brings this exhibition together.

Natalie Ryan creates flock-covered sculptures of animals but there is more to the work than just this unique visual identity. There are art and decorative references in Ryan’s sculptures the game hunter’s trophies and the still life gaming pieces. What was once considered a noble sport has now become kitsch and disturbing. And this change of value is reversed with Ryan’s use of the kitsch flock to create high quality art. In the final space there is a covered flock form glowing with the ultraviolet intensity of Yves Klein International Blue.

I remember visiting the large taxidermy works when I was a child living in Kenya. The smell of the tanning hides is my strongest memory. Then there were all the sculpted moulded forms, for all the big game animals being prepared for museum dioramas. Taxidermy animals are not stuffed; the animal’s skin is stretched over the form, providing the muscles, soft tissues and skeletal structure except for the ears and tails. Natalie Ryan doesn’t use many real parts from the animals, sometimes teeth or horns; it is the artificial parts, the glass eyes etc. used to create these stuffed animals with the flock replaces the real animal skin.

In this exhibition Reko Rennie is taking spray paint stencil art back to its decorative and architectural origins. Stencils were commonly used to paint decorations on walls in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. The red and yellow geometric pattern painted wall by Rennie are hung with a row of Ryan’s pink flock covered animal heads. Another wall has large gum leaf and flower stencils is hung with Rennie’s aerosol stencil paintings of Australian birds.

Dianne Tanzer Gallery + Projects has changed; the white cube has gone, the narrow entrance gallery has gone and the space has opened up. It no longer pretending to be just an space containing art. What once was previously hidden behind walls, like the office space, has been revealed; there is a table and chairs in the front window. It looks like there is more life in the place.


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