It is the smell of ground bone that is most striking. A very specific scent that most people have only ever experienced a few times in their lives when lying, mouth open, beneath a dentist’s drill. It’s surprising to experience it again, in its full acrid force, as a rotary saw opens the skull of a coyote. The message in this visceral medium is clear: We’re linked to this animal. We’re more alike than we are different.
The Covington home of artist Jeremy Johnson is a frozen menagerie. The faces of animals — some placid, others captured in a moment of vigor — stare out at visitors, seeking a sort of communion. Hollow skulls, one human, which Johnson obtained through an Internet sale some years back, cast a shade of the macabre on the dining room-turned-dissection studio. It’s taxidermy that’s less good ol’ boy than it is Addams Family. And the finely tuned restorations of beasts such as beaver, flying squirrel and swan are the artifacts, byproducts of the dissections, which are, explains Johnson, the point of his work.
“It’s a public dissection as you might have seen a few hundred years ago,” Johnson says. “Everything I do comes down to the dissection and the advancement of the understanding of anatomy. However, the taxidermy is a very important part. I don’t forget where the taxidermy comes from. While it is kind of my product and the artwork that I’m making, it all comes down to the foundation of what it all means, which to me is the dissection and the investigation.”
Johnson presents his dissections publicly at his home a few times a year and occasionally at larger venues. Two years ago he presented a coyote at Prairie Gallery in Northside. On Halloween, he’ll offer another coyote for the consideration of an audience at the Art Academy. The animals Johnson uses have all died of natural causes or by accident. He is careful to avoid the ethical swamp of using bodies harvested, preferring to stick with those found. A black swan he disassembled at his home earlier this year was discovered frozen to death. Exhibitions like these take several hours and involve the opening of the stomach to reveal the last meal, the inflation of the lungs by air compressor, the removal of the organs and brain and narrated tour of the beast’s musculature.
Johnson is an expert anatomist and identifies each body part for the audience and explains how it works.
The mounts or restorations — these are the terms for a taxidermied specimen — look different than one might imagine. Johnson’s work isn’t simply a deer’s head and neck protruding from a stand or a stiff framed bird that might be seen in a museum. His work appears to be alive. The swan’s wings are outstretched as it would be in a run. The cat appears to be sleeping in his bookcase. The fox creeps stealthily along a ledge.
“The kind of work I do is in a couple of different categories,” he says. “One is a kind of anthropomorphic taxidermy. Images like a raccoon family or a flying squirrel. Things that have almost human, kind of cartoony emotion, meant to attract a kind of empathy from the viewer. There’s also some that are more stoic and dynamic. I like to find poses in animals that have a lot of sculptural movement and at the same time, when you’re looking at them, they don’t look like they’re frozen in time as much as they are staying in that position. Then there’s others that are assuming a position that is really the end result of the sculpture — how exactly can you get a bird of that size to balance on just one toe?”
Johnson is self-taught and began along the road of his avocation as a child. He would find animals that had died and was curious about what made them tick. He collected and started to preserve them and found that this was something others did, too. His work ranges from very small items like butterflies on pins to massive pieces like the African lion skeleton. Working over the course of months, Johnson hinged and spring-loaded the lion’s joints to craft a posable, articulated frame.
Johnson recognizes the creepy aspect of his work. It’s given him a reputation in his neighborhood and has led to at least one ghastly lesson for a trespassing child. In Johnson’s backyard is a tree house that is off limits to everyone but him. He told the kids in the neighborhood to stay out, and why, but one girl wouldn’t listen.
“I have bags of things that are going through different processes in decomposition,” Johnson says. “One of those bags, I had hung from one of the timbers in the tree house because I didn’t want animals to get to it.”
The curious girl, determined to see for herself what was in the tree house, climbed up and tried to get in. She lost her balance and grabbed at the nearest handhold — the bag that Johnson had inside.
“I think I may have actually heard the girl scream,” he says. “She got an entire bag full of liquified dog on her.”
The shock value of the work drives them away — he hasn’t had any more trouble with kids on his property — but it also gets them in the door. And that’s OK, says Johnson. He doesn’t shun the macabre factor, because it works to build his audience.
“I want them to walk away with a greater appreciation for the mechanical body that they have, that they use every day and look with a greater understanding at the nature that is around them,” Johnson says. “Being able to intimately see a raccoon, for instance, as part of a dissection. To be able to intimately see that and have a kind of connection to it. There is no more curious a connection you could have than seeing the inside.”
Additionally, Johnson says he hopes his work brings viewers to consider and question their own mortality.
“I’m often reminded of a plaque that’s at the end of the Capuchin Crypt, which is a crypt that is built completely out of human bones,” he says. “The plaque at the very end reads, ‘What you are now, we once were. What we are now, you will be.’ It’s really being able to see yourself in a mirror of anatomy, of physiology, of death.”
JEREMY JOHNSON presents a three-hour dissection at the Art Academy of Cincinnati Wednesday, open to students and alumni. More information: www.meddlingwithnature.com.