One might be forgiven for presuming a topic like taxidermy to be more familiar to a demographic of middle aged men. However, it seems that the stuffing of dead animals and the creation of fine art are by no means as strange a juxtaposition as one might think. The creations of Polly Morgan, artist turned taxidermist, is a prime example. In fact one could say Morgan’s studies in taxidermy are as good a definition of still life as any 17th century Dutch flower painting.
Since starting work in 2005, Morgan’s popularity has soared, with all her pieces currently featuring in The Age of The Marvellous exhibition at One Marylebone.
Morgan claims that although she has always found beauty in decay, her interest in taxidermy was sparked whilst she was furnishing her flat and “wanted to startle people by having dead birds and rats lying about unassumingly on bookshelves”.
Contemporary art, such as Damien Hirst’s pickled sharks, can appear clinical. But what is truly individual about Morgan’s work is the display of true craftsmanship. Morgan, 29, understudied British taxidermy specialist George Jamieson for a year to master the skills she needed to practise and is now a fully fledged member of the Guild of Taxidermists.
Unlike Hirst’s test subjects in tanks of formaldehyde, there is nothing alienating about Morgan’s pieces. Eerie and eccentric perhaps and in the case of Vestige straight from the old curiosity shop , but with a certain sense of sensitivity.
“I love animals,” says Morgan, “I’m thrilled that taxidermy can give me the access to creatures that, in life, weren’t interested in being looked at or touched”. Morgan’s Dead Ringer, a Magpie on its back aloft an old dial telephone is eye catching, witty and echoes Dali’s surreal Lobster Telephone.
York’s own Norman Rea Gallery is soon to hold its own exhibition of hand-made art. It intends to highlight how designers, illustrators and artists have been reverting back to traditional materials and techniques in recent times. Artists are adopting the philosophy of make-do-and-mend and in Morgan’s case almost literally breathing new life into old things. But Morgan takes a different view, believing it is more a question of the “cyclical nature” of things.
We only need look to recent art history to see that there isn’t anything new about blurring the boundaries between fine art and traditional craftsmanship. ‘Young British Artist’ Tracy Emin might be best known for her infamous ready-made, or rather unmade, My Bed. It was unleashed on the unsuspecting public in 1996, but the majority of her work is hand-crafted. Besides donating her soiled linen for the entertainment and education of the general public, Emin also airs out her dirty laundry through the medium of craft and in particular appliqué. What most people would consider as traditional patchworking – for example, the paradoxical blanket meets tapestry Hate and Power can be a terrible thing – is celebrated as art.
Emin is likened to her predecessor, the legendary artist, Louise Bourgeois, now 97. She was born into the French Tapestry industry and has been stitching and sculpting since the Thirties.
“I think my popularity is probably greater amongst those who are mistrustful of conceptual art as they can see I’ve put the work in and that appeals to their work ethic”, explains Morgan. “I can sympathise with that, ‘I could’ve done that’ to an extent- It is more of a challenge to look at an unmade bed, reminiscent of one you just dragged yourself out of to go to the gallery, and feel a sense of awe and wonder.”
Although she maintains that to consistently question the monetary value of artwork is to take “a foolish road. If you start to view art as being worth the sum of its parts then you are not looking at the overall work. Art is alchemy – if the artist has succeeded in transforming an everyday object (be it paint, a bed or a dead bird) into something that is resonant and powerful then it is priceless”. I for one have to agree.
The Age of The Marvellous exhibition is showing between 15th and 22nd October at One Marylebone, London. York’s Hand-Made exhibition at the Norman Rea Gallery will be opening in Spring term.