Fads and Trends - Reinventing Taxidermy Presentation If we stand on the proposition that truth and beauty are the arch attributes of a fine artwork of any kind, it follows that there is a way to express those qualities. Terms like good, excellent, brilliant or sublime are easily understood, but when a critic says an artwork is good or great, we expect that he can tell us why in objective terms. Quality in art (quote) “…is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree objectively traceable.” - Jakob Rosenberg in his book Quality in Art. Objective criticism is factually based whereas subjective criticism is more opinion based. A critical analysis is expressed as criticism with equal emphasis on the merits (if any) and not just the faults. And this from the internet: An objective perspective is one that is not influenced by emotions, opinions, or personal feelings - it is a perspective based in fact, in things quantifiable and measurable. To reiterate, - based in fact, quantifiable and measurable. Movies and the culinary arts are two art-forms familiar to all with Siskel and Ebert probably the best known critics on movie reviews. Personal tastes aside, their reviews aid us in deciding whether a movie is worth watching or not for its writing, visual, and artistic merits. Similarly, food critics evaluate the quality of restaurants and chefs rating them as one to five stars. Such reviews are widely published to enlighten the consuming public as to the expected quality of the work products of these respective art forms. Criticism is not just useful to a consumer but necessary to the progressive development of an artist. Keep that in mind as you read on. And while the likes of movie producers, writers, etc. know their products are on public view and subject to public criticism, they take the bad with the good knowing such reviews are the writers opinions often with constructive criticism as much implied as stated. In taxidermy competitions judges look for flaws on mounts with a critical eye but score a piece on its merits. Should a competitor wish a judge’s critique on his piece, it’s always in terms of constructive criticism. But you can’t publicly criticize a winning piece of taxidermy, especially a top winner outside of a competition venue without being excoriated by the competitor or his defenders. So consequently, there’s little or no criticism happening outside of competitions “…necessary to the progressive development of an artist”. With this year’s taxidermy competitions now history, I enjoy viewing the pictures posted here and elsewhere of winning pieces which also gives a fair picture of the current state of the art at competitions. From what I’ve seen this year I’m mostly in accord with the judges’ and people’s choices on the technical accuracy of the taxidermy part of the winning pieces especially the bird and fish mounts. But as far as truth and beauty goes relevant to the complete integrated work of a mounted entry, its design, accessories composition and base work, a lot of those winning entries, current and past, are not exemplary pieces of great works of art. With rare exceptions, this year’s top winners, and for several years past did not produce an abundance of consistently fine pieces one would call good or excellent works of art. And as more of an applied art as opposed to a fine art, it’s difficult to imagine any taxidermy themed artwork approaching sublimity outside of a museum. By applied art, I mean the kind purposely done to win a taxidermy competition or to satisfy a client’s order rather than art for art’s sake. And once an entry has been adjudged a winner it is forever lauded on magazine covers and web sites like this with little mention as to whether it is an outstanding artwork or just a work of outstanding technical taxidermy. Many of the top pieces are neither. Truth is often partial and much of their beauty lies as much in the part nature created, that is in the color of fur and hair and feathers, their textures, color patterns, choice horns and antlers, etc., as it does in the technical perfection of the mount itself. When I look at many of these winning pieces of first class taxidermy, frequently large species of mammals, one of the first things I ask myself is what is the context supposed to be? If it isn’t immediately obvious, my eyes starts roaming around the accessories or the base for a clue, any clue to try to figure out what the piece is supposed to portray. If it isn’t obvious, then the competitor (as artist) has failed, not the viewer. For instance, you never have to guess at a context when looking at duck stamps. Without exception, they all have complete habitat backgrounds of lakes or marsh or cloudscapes that give a context to the subject, - the ducks. They never paint just the head or club off the legs or other body parts. And they don’t mix and match abstract or modernist styles or elements like symbolic trees or clouds or body parts just to be different to catch a judge’s eye. Such interpretations in the duck stamp contest wouldn’t make the first cut. I realize that paintings are two dimensional renderings and taxidermy is three dimensional, little different from sculpture. But accomplished sculptors stay with one style in a single work and not mix realistic and abstract forms in the same piece. To me that’s Rogue taxidermy and it’s present in every competition of late. More often than not, I quickly notice in many of these show stoppers that they immediately draw attention to their construction. There is an obvious striving to see how cleverly, or flimsily the mount can be attached to a piece of habitat or how small the base can be made and still keep the whole thing from toppling over at a gentle push or vibrating like a guitar string if you plucked it. It’s part of a current trend of using minimal rockworks and dead wood as a shortcut substitute for the most appropriate habitat of the species and situation of the animal portrayed. I wonder how many are even aware that the lines formed by such rocks and sticks do not draw the viewer’s attention to the center of interest, the head or face of the mount? And even when there is a modestly substantial base to support everything, the mounts are often hung, if you will, too far from the base to establish a decent visual sculptural unity. I notice too a question of plausibility. Many of the attitudes or activities depicted exhibit a forced dynamism with low plausibility in animal behavior. Single predators are usually depicted snarling or scowling with nothing to suggest who or what they’re angry at. Paired predators are usually engaged in furious mortal combat, my guess being just to show how undetectably the competitor can attach each specimen to the other or away from the base. Such egocentric interpretations are amateurish and don’t pass the notice of people with even a modestly cultured taste in animal art. Outstanding sculptors don’t flaunt mechanical genius to elicit public admiration of their works. The criteria for scoring in competitions is quite objective about accuracy and realism even while scorecards have become long and somewhat complex. The focus is on the specimen/s and not the presentation as a whole. I don’t fault this for the reason it makes things easier for judges with limited artistic or natural history backgrounds and straight forward for competitors to understand. That we still use scorecards at all is also a testament to how insular and irrelevant the art of taxidermy is in the wider world of visual arts. (Criteria like artistic impact and creativity are too subjective for me.) Everyone understands that mounting a specimen close to its live counterpart is what it takes to win big. But as for the part about context, habitat, accessories, composition, plausibility, balance and design, that is the presentation of the whole piece as a unified work of wildlife art, nothing has to conform strictly to facts or truth in nature to win in a taxidermy competition. Top wildlife artists like painters and sculptors are intuitive about accuracy and all the other factors that go into a great work of wildlife art. You see the truth of this when you count the number of tail feathers or primaries in paintings of flying raptors. And those pieces that impress us most are the result of the painter’s intimate knowledge of natural history, as well as training and knowledge in the principles of the visual arts along with technical skill. Jack Fishwick, well known judge at the WTC and international events, a master bird taxidermist and naturalist in his own right said this in an interview at a past World Taxidermy Championship, “You also need a great in depth knowledge of art, design, composition.” It seems to me that rather than take the time to study art, many top competitors, actually study trendy competitions winners, perhaps in an effort to reinvent taxidermy presentation standards rather than follow the standards of famous wildlife painters and sculptors. For the record, one fad on game heads is to point the muzzle skyward, often with an open mouth and no contextual elements that tells the viewer if the animal is trying to determine the time of day from the position of the sun, or looking to pluck some leaves from a tree that isn’t there, or simply intended to present the mouth and nose to a judge for inspection. I think it’s the latter. It certainly is a fine way to obscure fine sets of horns or antlers out of view. I’d rather see the horns or antlers fully presented instead of perfectly groomed throats. Experimentation is one thing, but there are other examples of common non-typical behavioral notions exhibited in competitions which I have to shake my head at. Like LS sheep running full tilt downhill over broken rockwork with their noses in the air so they can’t see where their hooves might happen to land. But that’s no worse than portraying airborne predators leaping in one direction and changing course mid-stream with the front half of their bodies in a return maneuver to re-engage their prey or adversary. Such winning pieces may be Best in Hotel, but hardly best in the world. As for the older consistent winners, we’ve seen about all they choose or know how to show us since their work appears more oriented on capturing awards by sticking with the trendy fads that won before rather than leading the field by showing us something fresh and new from the infinity of the truths in Nature in all its sublime beauty. These are often pieces that are shopped around from competition to competition. One can fairly predict what to expect from these competitors from their entries in past shows. In my opinion they have not made a serious study of art or natural history or both and prefer to stick with stale ideas that have won in the past. That’s what many of their entries suggest to me. Most will agree that this current generation of young taxidermist aspirants deserve some guidance to assist them in learning and understanding what constitutes an outstanding piece of taxidermy themed artwork. To that end I wrote my third book, A Conversation with Carl Akeley. In it I expound at length on the principles of artistic merit and reference numerous books which I consider a must read for any aspiring taxidermist. But no one deserves anything he/she hasn’t earned by study (reading, drawing, field observation,) experiment and lots of hard work. If they achieve anything worthwhile, their achievements can’t be credited much more than a few digit percentages to participation in taxidermy competitions; arguments to the contrary. Association seminars traditionally focus principally on the technical aspects of taxidermy techniques and methods, and not on an “…in depth knowledge of art, design, composition.” Judges’ critiques are too limited to fast track anyone into artistic success much beyond competition or business success; opinions to the contrary. We have all seen excellent commercial work as fine as anything in competitions by great taxidermists who don’t bother with competitions or associations either for that matter. And this does not denigrate the value of competitions in any way. The main takeaway of competitions at least is that everyone gets to see what is good and not so good with ample opportunity to discuss their opinions with their own peers. And there’s no denying that it is a genuinely good feeling to be recognized for the first time in the top circle of winners and receive those warm and sincere hugs from family and friends. Prize money is mere frosting on the cake. For those with a passion for the art of taxidermy itself, reading my last book would be a good start along with a dozen books by the old masters, plus how-to books by notable painters and sculptors. It doesn’t matter if the old dogs learn new tricks, but I would like to see all the new dogs learn the old tricks and lead the field into higher standards of artistic presentation. When it happens, I’ll add my praise and congratulations along with everyone else who recognizes and appreciates real quality in taxidermy themed wildlife art.