Catherine Coan: Hybrid Taxidermy and Victorian Surrealism

10/20/2016 08:05 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2016
LA Art Show 2016, installation view
Catherine Coan
LA Art Show 2016, installation view

It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light.

If you cut me I could shine.

But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,

I skin my knees. I bleed.

--Billy Collins

Samsara II, mixed media, LA Art Show 2016 installation view
Catherine Coan
Samsara II, mixed media, LA Art Show 2016 installation view

Catherine Coan’s eccentric, narrative, and emotionally rich use of taxidermy animals in her dioramas, sculptural tableaux, and architectural installations is attention-grabbing for its wit, conceptual complexity, and notable skill. But it’s only one kind of magic among the many she works in her studio. In addition to her extensive training and personal innovation in taxidermy, she is a writer, poet, a finessed and patient collagist, painter and a builder/modifier of 1:12 and HO scale models and miniatures-within-miniatures, and an omnivorous bricoleur always on the lookout for the intriguing geode, jewel, furnishing, birdcage, toy weapon, and cinematic or literary reference to give detailed form to her novel visions. Her jaunty variety of Postmodernism transforms the fundamentals of an old-school genre into a poignant, timely update commenting on humanity’s dysfunctional relationship to nature, sexuality, and itself.

Father Nature
Catherine Coan
Father Nature
The Tea Party
Catherine Coan
The Tea Party

In this rediscovery of the genres of taxidermy and miniature dioramas, Coan joins artists as stylistically diverse as Charles Maddox, Petah Coyne, Liz McGrath, Simon Wilson, Serena Brewer, Gregory de la Haba, Scott Hove, and even the Victorian artist Walter Potter, who is enjoying something of a renaissance just now. Coan speculates that part of the reason so many contemporary taxidermy-based artists are women is that by and large men are trophy hunters, whereas women are storytellers, and like herself, they are compelled to make allegories, and explore other levels of meaning. In an aesthetic kinship with Victorian-era practitioners of taxidermy who were motivated by a scientific curiosity as well as the cheeky, ornate pop culture of their day, Coan sees the appeal of anthropomorphic overtures in her work -- especially what she calls “sex, drugs, violence and nonsense” -- but is very careful to steer clear of any hint of kitsch like costumes or precious domestication. The scenarios and surreal situations of her best known series -- Hybrid Taxidermy and Canary Suicides -- are not about animals adopting human behaviors, but rather, they are about animals, as they are, invading human spaces and wreaking their own special, feral havoc in them.

Prix Fixe, LA Art Show 2016 installation view
Catherine Coan
Prix Fixe, LA Art Show 2016 installation view
Her Question, LA Art Show 2016 installation view
Catherine Coan
Her Question, LA Art Show 2016 installation view

Inhabiting nuanced meditations on escape, mortality, captivity and freedom, Coan’s animal protagonists engage in their own battles, wrestle their own demons, question the nature of their own existence, and often fetishize ownership of their own captive pets. “I like to play with the idea that a human might understand his or her relationship with a pet quite differently than the pet understands it,” observes Coan. In her collage Darling for example, a little girl looks lovingly at her pet rabbit, over whose head hovers a thought bubble containing a handgun. Having grown up around hunters and fishermen in Montana -- and having lived in homes replete with taxidermy as a child -- Coan is not opposed to ethical, non-trophy-centric hunting. But her studio’s sourcing practices use only animals who have died on farms or with breeders, or re-purposing hides gone unclaimed from other taxidermists, and are as ethically impeccable as her humor is edgy and dark.

Pinky Boy (Two Hats), mixed media collage
Catherine Coan
Pinky Boy (Two Hats), mixed media collage
I'm Game, installation view
Catherine Coan
I'm Game, installation view
His Master's Voice (detail)
Catherine Coan
His Master's Voice (detail)

Her Hybrid Taxidermy pieces spin their own poetic tales that generate more mysteries than they solve, presenting curious interactions between species, their bodies sometimes embedded or encrusted with geodes, or inventing their own uses for our furniture, in both intimate arrangements and full-scale room-size environments. As one of a small number of individual artists invited to create special exhibitions for the LA Art Show in 2016, Coan created an immersive and richly detailed full-scale Victorian Salon installation that made excellent use of dozens of individual taxidermy assemblages in populating a fraught tableau mashing up Animal Farm and Downton Abbey in an unforgettable, hyperreal fairy tale dream. Her cheeky sensibility of lace-tipped gothic surrealism infused this luxuriously decorated alternative reality with the same attention to detail that serves her so well in the craftsmanship of her miniatures -- and translates impeccably back to human scale. The eerie authenticity of the setting, its baroque depths of color and ornament and genteel sociability makes for the perfect set up to Coan’s ultimate goal -- sparking a closer examination of humanity’s own feral foibles.

Canary Suicide: Burnout (detail)
Catherine Coan
Canary Suicide: Burnout (detail)

Her Canary Suicides by contrast, are miniatures of inconceivable precision. They are built inside vintage bird cages whose ornate forms reference both the culture of the fetishized pet and the ornate medieval reliquaries built to contain sacred artifacts. “I’ve always loved the intersections between medieval reliquaries and modern assemblage such as that of Rauschenberg and Kienholz,” says Coan. “My larger pieces and installations evolved from there, like Russian stacking dolls, containing stories within stories.” The canaries started as an idea for visual narrative poems inspired by contemporary avant-garde assemblage art. Many of the animals “characters” show up in her poems, and she’s used her own writings in some of her installations. As these specifically reference iconic moments of cinematic and literary history like Thelma & Louise, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Fargo, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, perhaps it’s no surprising that movie stars like Robert Downey, Jr. and media outfits like The Bloggess are avid collectors of these works. In fact many of the canaries are failed writers or musicians, their final creative act being the staging of their deaths and the composition of their goodbyes. The birds always leave a note.

Canary Suicide: Sylvia's Kitchen
Catherine Coan
Canary Suicide: Sylvia's Kitchen
Canary Suicide: Sylvia's Kitchen (detail)
Catherine Coan
Canary Suicide: Sylvia's Kitchen (detail)

Coan’s work can be seen as part of the group exhibition Trap House at Think Tank in DTLA, free and open to the public through October 31, Mon-Weds, 3-11pm; noon-12am weekends.

Se will be part of Copro Gallery’s January 2017 exhibition, Conjoined; and in September 2017 she will unveil a new full-scale installation at Riverside City College.

Canary Suicide: Chipper
Catherine Coan
Canary Suicide: Chipper
Canary Suicide: Chipper (detail)
Catherine Coan
Canary Suicide: Chipper (detail)
I'm Game, installation detail
Catherine Coan
I'm Game, installation detail
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