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Elaine Bradford crochets clothes for dead animals. Maybe "clothes" isn't entirely accurate; Bradford's creations are more like "cozies" for stuffed wildlife. She is most widely known in the art community for her series of crochet-covered mounted deer heads. Her new show at the Art League Houston, "Museum of Unnatural History," is reportedly the artist's farewell to taxidermied animals — she will neither clothe nor mutate them after this. Never say never, but if that's true, Bradford's certainly going out with a bang. The same love of the absurd that led her to knit her first deer-head sweater is on full display in her mock museum of natural history.
The "Museum of Unnatural History" purportedly houses a collection of animal specimens "discovered" by a Dr. Thomas Harrigan in a region called the "Sidereal." Bradford even collaborated with a writer, J.D. Ho, to create a helpful "guide" to the collection and informational wall text written in museum-ese. The text reveals the Latin names of the animals and describes their imagined environments as well as feeding and reproductive habits. Bradford is undoubtedly an aficionado of natural history museums, because her parody is pitch-perfect. From the depressing dirty ocher color of the walls to the wood bases of the dioramas sporting gold letter labels, the installation channels the stuff of school field trips. And then the whole place is filled with Bradford's assortment of oddly altered dead animals sporting crocheted skins. The museum features creatures like the "pushmi-pullyu" of Doctor Doolittle fame.
Shown in the center of the gallery, the pushmi-pullyu (Tragus januali) is comprised of the front halves of two mountain goats, fused together. Their bodies are connected in the center, and a striped crocheted sweater (in shades of orange, gold and avocado) covers them from head to hooves to head to hooves. Instead of presenting the piece on the bare floor or on a plain white plinth like the artwork that it is, Bradford went the natural history museum route and built an oblong wooden structure that contains rocks and moss, creating a swatch of the creature's "natural environment." She convincingly crafted her rocks with what appears to be Styrofoam and joint compound covered with faux painting. Rather than mimicking rocks, Bradford has effectively and wittily mimicked the way exhibit designers mimic rocks.
In three corners of the room, Bradford created dioramas with wonderful cheesily painted backdrops showcasing various species. One diorama is a kind of tropical forest bursting with fake foliage; another is an arid desert (scant fake foliage); the best, and goofiest, is a kind of arctic cave.
Gold letters on the wooden base of the arctic diorama proclaim it to be the "Labyrinth of Frozen Clouds." Wall text offers elaborate explanations of the creatures, their environment and their strange adaptations. Crochet-covered bunnies and squirrels sport striped ensembles and snaking protuberances. This frosty crackpot environment is the real standout. Using tried-and-true papier-mâché along with a liberal application of joint compound, paint and glitter, Bradford created giant icy stalactites and stalagmites. The dioramas feel like exhibits from a not especially well-funded natural history museum in a not especially large city — and I mean that in a good way.
Farther down the wall, Bradford presents a series of great photographs in which she "captures" her creatures in their "natural" habitats. A "longcat" (Lynx metamorpha) snarls from a tangle of dry grass. (The longcat is basically a stuffed — and extended — lynx that looks like he's wearing a crocheted balaclava.) A "jackalope" (Lepus monocero) crouches in leafy green underbrush. The pushmi-pullyu dramatically poses next to a rocky outcropping.
Bradford's a talented and inventive artist, and the animals are as witty as they are labor-intensive. But there is also something kind of poignant about staring into the glass eyes of a dead stuffed squirrel clad in a lovingly crocheted bodysuit. Although she is a young artist, Bradford's been in a ton of shows. But even more impressive than her exhibition record is the sheer volume of yarn she has crocheted her way through. Given the vastness of her production, you'd expect her to have a "frequent patient" card at the nearest hand-surgery center. Check out her Web site (elainebradford.weebly.com/index.html), and you'll realize she's not just into taxidermied animals. Bradford has crocheted sweaters, cozies and clothing for all kinds of ridiculous stuff: rocks, baseboards, logs, trees, truck bumpers, boards, an upright vacuum, condiment bottles, baby carrots, stumps, Justin Boyd...I can't imagine how many hours went into all this stuff. Making a "tree sweater" isn't exactly something you can knock out in an afternoon.
Even if there isn't any more crochet for dead animals in Bradford's future, she definitely can get quite a bit more artistic mileage out of her handicraft. But for me the dioramas really steal the show. Their exuberant wackiness bodes well for other installation work. You can tell she had a blast making this stuff, and it seems like something that could also be channeled into future projects. But whatever she does in the future, the "Museum of Unnatural History" is a great chance to see the wide range of Bradford's imagination and talent. If you thought she just did deer heads, this is the show for you.