19th century European scholars of natural history often practiced a combination of observation and invention. Based on studies of animals in their habitats or as fossilized remains, they would draw, paint, or sculpt specimens in dramatic poses surrounded by an idealized landscape. Philip Henry Gosse, author of The Romance of Natural History (1861), compared his study of the natural world to that of a poet “who looks at nature through a glass peculiarly his own; [at] the aesthetic aspect, which deals, not with statistics, but with the emotions of the human mind,– surprise, wonder, terror, revulsion, admiration, love, desire, and so forth– which are made energetic by the contemplation of the creatures around him.”
Elaine Bradford’s displays of invented animals in artificial environments reawaken the imaginative possibilities of merging scientific observation with fiction. The brightly colored striped “skins” that she crochets around taxidermy allow her to adapt the behaviors and appearances of the original species over which she is crocheting. She often uses crochet to extend the animals’ limbs or necks or join multiple animals together– as in her pair-bears, whose tails are permanently fused together when they mate. As a material that enables connections, crocheted yarn thus conveys feelings of warmth, affection, connection, friendship, and even love. Its metaphorical potential is reminiscent of Joseph Beuys’s use of felt to evoke protection, insulation, and spiritual warmth.
Even more powerful than her material’s symbolic possibilities is the compelling depth to which Bradford has imagined her alternate universe. In her Museum of Unnatural History, animals are given their own names, classifications, and developed stories, which were originally told in collaboration with performance artist Jill Pangallo and author J.D. Ho at Bradford’s solo exhibition at Art League Houston. The detail with which Bradford’s fantastical world has been imagined makes for a completely engrossing viewing experience where one could spend hours learning about the crocheted creatures and their parallel universe– The Sidereal. The artist’s imagination thus becomes completely transformative, using materials that are commonly used for crafts and hobbies to describe an entirely unfamiliar parallel universe.