At the bottom of Milam Street Wednesday night, just up from the bayou, a couple of usually unremarkable storefront windows were attracting attention, causing a crowd.
Having long stood empty, tonight they presented visitors and passersby with a sort of bygone museum diorama: "natural" settings reproduced by means of plastic ficuses and dressed-up Styrofoam, showcasing - quite literally - exotic specimens of animal life from a land so distant it may as well be imaginary.
These cozy creatures came from Elaine Bradford's ongoing crochet-and-taxidermy project, here called "The Sidereal," that opens the Blaffer Art Museum's new exhibition space and series "Window into Houston."
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Bradford's fans have come to recognize her highly distinctive work over the years, most significantly from her solo show two years ago at Art League Houston. . Since then she's scored a commission to fit out the rotunda of the Vinson Branch of the Houston Public Library. It's hard to think of a Houston artist whose work fits so aptly into a ground-floor window display. The windows not only protect the works from the sidewalk, they also enhance the scientific verisimilitude of the settings and postures of the animals. The uninformed sidewalk visitor has to ask himself over and again, "Is this for real? If it's not, then why not?"
Jim Petersen, the building's owner - it's his home - was enjoying the double-takes he witnessed as the show was going up, folks circling back to confirm what they'd just seen. At one point all the downtown bike cops had gathered to ask Bradford about her show. "I think it's great," says Petersen, "to be able to bring great art into people's daily lives this way." He is especially enthusiastic about the ability for students and community at the University of Houston-Downtown to visit his windows on their way to Market Square.
The Blaffer's director Claudia Schmuckli says, "The timing couldn't have been more perfect." Petersen had approached her a few months earlier to suggest using his storefronts. Then the museum was scheduled for renovations that would effectively close its doors from July to December 2011. In order to stay relevant and active in that time, the museum devised the new series, which will provide the highly visible space to a Houston artist every three months, and which will continue even after the Blaffer's UH gallery reopens.