Prominently displayed at the entrance of Women and Their Work is Elaine Bradford’s name and the exhibition title, Freaks of Nurture. The words sit atop a turquoise wall covered with gray and baby-blue stripes. They entice us like the call of a sideshow carney to come and see the strange wonders we are about to behold.
There are just under 10 pieces on display in this exhibition, including an antlered, crochet-covered deer head in the front window. All of Bradford’s pieces include some form of taxidermy in combination with crochetwork and buttons, materials that respectively reference male survival and aggression along with female domesticity and comfort.
One of the strongest pieces in the show and the first to catch my attention is Non-typical Antler Growth. A classic trophy head possesses an atypical antler that animates the static head, which is solidly mounted to the wall. The mutated or malformed antler brings our attention down to the ground and out into the space of the gallery. Here we find Snarl, which I will talk about later, and Mongolian Knotted Deer, a tiny and torturously stretched fawn that is literally tied in a knot.
Mongolian Knotted Deer sits on the floor wearing a strange sweater that covers its head. Around its eyes a rectangular patch has been cut out, reminiscent of the black bands used in medical textbooks to mask the identity of the patient. Here Bradford has used the rectangle as a formal device that reveals the specimen’s true identity. This band of exposed fur and the little tuff of tail that peeks out from its behind give Mongolian Knotted Deer its warmth and sense of humor. The colors are cheerful and candy bright. I can almost see this deer making awkward but frisky sidesteps across the gallery floor.
Two baby-blue walls frame Longneck, another favorite. This creature is so twisted and elongated in form, its head sits motionless on the floor. Its muscles appear to be made of elastic. Patiently waiting, but not dead, it looks at us with eyes that seem aware, hopeful that someone, anyone, will pick its head up and let it look around for a while.
This is a world that comes alive by presenting humble yet expected materials in an unexpected context. This particular aesthetic vocabulary is certainly not new for women artists: Feminism long ago reclaimed the feminine and the domestic in art. Many female artists, some good and some bad, have used the language of craft as a starting point in their work. Judy Chicago, Liza Lou, Annette Messager and even animation artist Nathalie Djurberg are some examples.
Bradford sets herself up as a participant in this conversation, considering fine art versus craft; handwork as more than mere women’s work; and the play of colliding gender dynamics. She does this by employing crochet and furthermore by showing this work in a space called Women and Their Work. But the question for her (or for a space like Women and Their Work) is, how is this discussion still relevant in 2007? How will she expand and evolve the discussion or will she remain in a static holding pattern from the 1970s?
I can see the redheaded stepchild of a lineage of women in Bradford’s work. She speaks of the repetitive process and the hours of labor that go into the making of a sweater, but the most successful pieces in this exhibition push past the labor and go beyond mere concepts of comfort and craft.
There is a passage in the book A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez that conjures an image of complete beauty followed by imminent devastation. It has been years since I first read this book, and while I do not remember it word for word, I am haunted time and again by its verbal imagery. Delicate yellow flowers float to the ground, gently pouring down and gradually covering the earth’s animals, creating soft mounds that are the color of hope. This beauty slowly engulfs and eventually suffocates. What begins as beauty thus becomes horror and decay. I immediately think of this image when I see Bradford’s installation. Her sculpture suggests the same quality of beauty and absurdity that magic realism describes.
I feel a sense of play and joy in Freaks of Nurture that is subverted only by the fact that the animals seem like innocent bystanders, part of a child’s game that has gone terribly wrong. Think of the mutated dolls in Pee Wee’s Playhouse on television or in the movie Toy Story. Pee Wee’s dolls accept or seem unaware of their difference. They laugh, play and are generally silly ― they are GOOD despite their difference. The messed up dolls in Toy Story, however, have taken on the deviance and anger of the brother who recreated their monstrous forms. Because of their difference, they are BAD. Which group do Bradford’s animals belong to? Is Elaine Bradford naughty or nice?
While her animals seem benign and unaware of their potential to cause fear, I believe the artist is fully aware of what their freakishness suggests. Perhaps this is why most are tethered to the wall or incapacitated by their sweaters in some way. Once normal living creatures, they are now hunted and butchered victims. Bradford dotes on them with an obsessive nurturing, making freaks of nature that only a mother could love. They are protected to the point of suffocation. Snarl, the card image, is a small fox form that is confined in an unending tangle of yarn, its head connected to its tail by a long abstracted straitjacket. While the fox’s sweater has buttons on the back, the fox is helpless to release itself from its prison.
Animals surrounded by the comfort of a sweater? To me there is only the illusion of comfort. These dead and inanimate animals are already covered in fur. While the crocheted string and wool may suggest sweet colors and softness, they are only a further example of our need to control nature. This domestication and confinement is what makes Bradford’s work so intriguing and, at its best, animates her sculpture. Her works are hopeful forms in potentially devastated bodies.
In her artist statement, Bradford writes of how these forms stem from the taxidermy trophies of her Texas childhood: “These ‘trophy’ animals are such odd objects to begin with, to comfort and conceal these forms by putting them in custom sweaters makes them that much more absurd. Through crocheting I am creating a second skin for the animals.” But is it a second skin? Or is it a sweater created as camouflage in the way hunters wear their hunting attire? Is it truly protection for these disfigured animals or is it just another way to tame the wild?
Recently I started a book called One of Us by Alice Domurat Dreger. In it, she questions what is “normal” and to what extent we as a society would potentially mutate and harm healthy anomalies so as to have these individuals fit our standards of normality. She speaks of extreme anomalies, such as conjoined twins or children born with confusing genitalia, and even asks why anomalies that are not harming the health of an individual, such as deafness or homosexuality, are considered imperfections. She argues that all differences should be considered just another form of being human.
The title One of Us is taken from the Tod Browning’s 1932 cult film Freaks, a particularly gruesome tale. I first saw Freaks in graduate school and was unable to get all of the way through the film. Yet I started it with wonder, having seen only static medical and textbook photographs of the real-life freaks that starred in the movie. When seen on film, these individuals became living, breathing and real. They were playful, kind and innocent, only to become horrible monsters through the eye of the director’s lens.
Freaks is about a troupe of circus sideshow freaks. In the film, a beautiful and “normal” blond pretends to accept them, specifically one of the male midgets, for her own personal gain. In the beginning they return her acceptance by chanting that she is “one of us.” The chant comes again at the conclusion of the film, when the freaks learn of her betrayal and hatred for them. As revenge, they turn her into a horribly mutated freak of nature: She is now literally one of them, a version of what is normal in their world. Again they chant, “One of us! One of us!”
So what makes an anomaly? Who is the arbiter of normality? Why do some anomalies fit inside the realm of acceptability and some lie outside of our social spectrum? What makes some cute and others monstrous? Elaine Bradford’s work seems to be asking all of these questions. Are her animals freaks of nature or are they stand-ins for human beings, and if so, are they one of us?
Images courtesy Women and Their Work
Margaret Meehan is an artist currently teaching at UT. She lives between Austin and Dallas.