People Who Make NY Special

Ryan Matthew Cohn’s Oddities

Take a walk on the very wild side at the strangest pop-up you’ll ever go to, the Oddities Flea Market.

Forget vintage shoes and old records. At the Oddities Flea Market, founded by Ryan Matthew Cohn and his wife, Regina, you can peruse rats in jars, antique burial slippers, and prosthetic eyeballs instead. Their oddities sale—featuring more than 60 specialist vendors and items from their personal archives (Ryan is also a jewelrymaker and osteological artist)—provides a one-of-a-kind chance to find macabre accent pieces and unique artwork.

Ryan Matthew Cohn
Photo by Jacqueline Roman

We chatted with Ryan about the market, his Brooklyn bar and museum House of Wax, and why he’s saving up to have his body turned into a skeleton.

What Should We Do?!: Can you describe the Oddities Flea Market aesthetic?
Ryan Matthew Cohn: At this year’s market, you can find something as straightforward as a unique set of candles or a taxidermied deer head, but right next to that is an automaton smoking a cigarette or an actual human femur. There are also illustrators and fine artists whose work fits into the category of “oddities.” It’s a broad spectrum of tastes that has developed into a community with some real depth. My wife and I personally handpick every single person who takes part in our flea market, so everyone selling is someone we think adds something unique and important.

But the market started as a place to get rid of the things that I didn’t need any longer. Most of what I’ll have on sale is spillover that I can’t really keep anymore, which tends to surprise people. “How is that spillover? It’s three cabinets’ full!” We’re unfortunately very limited in how much space is left in our home. The collection goes literally floor to ceiling.

WSWD: Who are some of your key exhibitors?
Cohn:
We love them all, of course, but Bloodmilk is a longtime favorite; they do elaborate, carefully sculpted jewelry. Amanda Lee Maer sells as Oddball Oddity; she has a huge array of prosthetic glass eyes. Miss Havisham’s is a newcomer to our market who is coming all the way from California. She sells antique teacup sets that she’s altered with painted calligraphy insults: “We Hate Your Baby,” “Please Go Die,” “Kindly Fuck Off.” You’ll be drinking your tea and you won’t see it until you’re nearly finished.

WSWD: How would you respond to someone who finds that sort of work ugly or offensive?
Cohn: The people who subscribe to the Oddities approach seem to understand what it entails; we’re sort of self-selecting that way. So far, we haven’t seen anyone turn up at the market who was so incredibly squeamish that they ran for the hills once they got there. We do have the occasional attendees who are dumbstruck when they walk in because they thought it was just a regular flea market and all of a sudden they’re face-to-face with glass bats and palm readers. We like to think that there’s something for everybody, even if you’re not necessarily an oddities collector.

WSWD: Your own work as a craftsman deals extensively with bonework. What drew you to that field?
Cohn: I have always been obsessed with anatomy, as well as an artist and a collector, so I guess at some point those three interests coalesced. I was attracted to osteology as a medium when I was younger, and I didn’t see a lot of artistic people working in that field. That’s not to say there aren’t historical roots; in the 1800s, craftsmen made complex bone displays for use by physicians. But those pieces were so expensive and so difficult to find, it was easier for me to try making what I wanted to own. The original antiques are pretty much impossible to find nowadays.

WSWD: Can you describe some of your osteological pieces?
Cohn: One of the preparations that I’m most known for is my exploded skull. It’s based on a 19th-century preparation where anatomists would work very closely with artists. They’re very beautiful, but they had a real scientific purpose. The cranium consists of many separate pieces that you don’t see until you take the natural components apart. In the method I use, each and every bone can be separately examined, but it stands as a whole, contiguous structure held together with wires and armatures. When I first started, there was no information about how to go about executing the process to create these pieces, so there was a lot of trial and error on animal bones before I graduated to actual, medical-grade human skulls, which I obtain from retired doctors or from medical institutions. These days, I do a signature piece, with the skull sliced in six sections that you can fan out in 360 degrees.

WSWD: Are there any artists in your field who have made the leap to museum-ready status? I’m thinking of someone like photographer Joel-Peter Witkin [whose subject matter includes corpses, dismembered bodies, and physical deformities].  
Cohn: I love Joel-Peter Witkin! He was an early inspiration. But the artists who speak to me the most right now are Renaissance-era painters who incorporated Gothic imagery into their work: severed hands, skulls on books, animals killed from the hunt. I’m influenced by the tradition of vanitas, 16th- and 17th-century still-life paintings that incorporate flowers and bones and baubles. It’s all I’ve been studying for the past 18 months. Re-creating vanitas in three dimensions is what my art is evolving into.

WSWD: Your website suggests you occasionally offer classes. How would you go about teaching a layperson to do what you do?
Cohn: I’ve had people offer to pay me to just come sit in my studio and watch me work. While I don’t typically do that, I have taught skeletal articulation seminars to show how the bones connect, to offer assistance in how to lay out a piece, to instruct the best way to make a stand, and so on. That’s something that I’m going to start doing at my bar, House of Wax. We’re planning weekend workshops and symposiums starting in late May with an absinthe tasting party, and developing into taxidermy and articulation classes in August. In the future, we hope to incorporate the same sort of courses and talks at the flea market as well.

WSWD: It sounds like you’re hoping to make House of Wax the new home for fans of the late, lamented Morbid Anatomy Museum.
Cohn: When Morbid closed, it left this gaping hole in the scene, and no one’s really had anywhere to go to scratch that itch. House of Wax has been open for about a year and a half, and we just want to carry on that tradition.
(Editor’s note: Since the time of this interview, Morbid has announced its resurrection via a partnership with WSWD favorite Green-Wood Cemetery.)

WSWD: What would you like done with your remains?
Cohn: My wife and I have long toyed with the idea of getting our bodies skeletonized when we pass: have our skeletons wired so that we’re holding each other’s hands and then donate the piece to a museum for display. That process isn’t as easy as it sounds! The red tape to have your body turned into a skeleton varies state to state. There’s a company that will do it, Skulls Unlimited, but it’s very expensive. We’ve already started a fund. The hardest part is finding an institution that will house your remains in perpetuity; you don’t want to get thrown out when a new landlord takes over!

WSWD: What’s your perfect New York day?
Cohn: Regina and I would wake up incredibly early to go to a really good antiques flea market. Then we’d lunch at Sugar Freak in Astoria. After lunch, we’d hang out in the back rooms of the Museum of Natural History and tour 19th-century mansions around the city. After that, it’s off to the Cloisters for an opening-day exhibition, followed by dinner at our favorite restaurant, Lilia.

Rapid Round!
Ryan Matthew Cohn’s Faves…in a NY Minute

Brunch?
Rabbit Hole.

Place to take out-of-town guests?
Coney Island.

Bookshop?
Rizzoli.

Store to splurge on jewelry?
De Vera.

Home-decor spot?
Showplace Antique and Design Center.

Ready to live life the Ryan Matthew Cohn way? Try our app for more of our expert tips and recommendations in NYC. Also, read about more inspiring New Yorkers in our People Who Make NY Special column.