As a child, Ryan Matthew Cohn would bring home bird carcasses and other peculiar things from the woods — not unlike a family cat collecting odds and (dead) ends from outdoors — and store them under his bed inside plastic bags. Just as cat trophies are justifiable aspects of their instinctual drive to bring back food for their litter, Cohn’s desire to collect oddities derived from his instinctual knowledge that these things have artistic and monetary value. Now, Cohn curates the Oddities Flea Market, an epic bazaar featuring vendors of taxidermied animals, osteological artwork, anatomical curiosities, medical ephemera and other similarly unconventional fare. On Saturday, Sept. 29, Cohn and his wife/business partner, Regina, are bringing their Brooklyn-based enterprise to the historic Globe Theatre in downtown L.A., where they will be joined by dozens of Los Angeles vendors known for the city's most unique and wonderfully weird wares.
Egyptian mummification stands as evidence that preserving and celebrating dead things is nothing new. However, to think that collecting and selling oddities is historically taboo would be inaccurate. “In the Victorian era, taxidermy was incredibly popular and accepted — and death in general,” Cohn explains. “You had 'memento mori' artwork, where you had wreaths made out of human hair that were used to remember loved ones that had passed away. … Same thing with animals. When pets would die, it was very common to have them stuffed and kept in the house.”
The reasons that artists and collectors have historically gravitated toward oddities varies, and while much of the content that makes up this market may seem macabre to some, in another context, collecting and working with dead things sounds quite reasonable. “[For me,] it was more just an interest in nature and also anatomy and things of that nature, and that was definitely the basis of my artwork growing up,” Cohn says. “Different artists and different people that are involved in our market have different reasons for collecting it. … I think some people are genuinely fascinated with death and so it's celebrated, and [they] accept the fact that we're all gonna die some day and we're celebrating mortality to a certain degree. … Then I think it's purely aesthetic to a lot of other people, [who] just enjoy the imagery of the skull or the imagery of a corpse or a dead animal or a dead creature.”
Though public interest in oddities waned after the Victorian era, today the market is stronger than ever. In the Greater Los Angeles area, businesses such as Bearded Lady Vintage and Oddities, La Femme en Noir and Century Guild — which are sponsoring the L.A. version of Cohn’s market — thrive year-round. Ave Rose, one of the Los Angeles–based artists who will exhibit at the Oddities Flea Market, has been a staple of the local oddities scene for many years. Rose sells her unique sculptures — which feature “organic robots” and jewelry fashioned from antique hardware and taxidermy ephemera — through her website and at various, usually dark-themed events. Melissa Johnson, another L.A.-based artist who will exhibit at Cohn’s market through her company, Miss Havisham’s Curiosities, specializes in “the interests of goth Martha Stewarts everywhere.”
However, apart from selling online, vending at horror-themed conventions or perhaps being featured by a handful of local businesses such as Memento Mori in Echo Park or the Dark Art Emporium in Long Beach, both of which showcase taxidermy, skulls, creepy dolls and Gothic decor (both will have a presence at Oddities) — there are not many events where oddities are featured. That might be changing, though.
“These things come in trends, just like anything else; the new Gucci ad campaigns are all Victorian and they're using death in a lot of these,” Cohn points out. “In fashion, you're seeing skulls widely used, and you're also seeing religious iconography — you see it sort of fall into the fashion world; you see it in advertising, and they come and go. But this is a trend that's really stayed at least for a decade. I mean, I haven't really seen it go away. It's become stronger and more and more popular with people. Everybody or most people can relate to this in one way or another. At least be fascinated by it.”
Those who are not drawn to something like the Oddities Flea Market because of a trend can find a deeper connection with like-minded aficionados. “When I was collecting as a kid, I had a whole network of people that collected it. Was it as popular? Certainly not,” Cohn explains. “[But] with this show, we put everybody together in one room. … We wanted to build a community of people that were like-minded. It's not just the vendors — people come to these events because [of] the people that come to them, it's almost like a big party in a way. It's a bunch of people who are very, very nonjudgmental, all able to be in the same room and sort of celebrate oddities. It's a really cool situation.”
The Oddities Flea Market takes place at the Globe Theatre, 740 S. Broadway, downtown.; Sat., Sept. 29, 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; $10. For more information about the market and for ticketing information, visit theodditiesfleamarket.com.