PRINT May 1993

Cross’ Purposes

FOR SOME YEARS NOW Dorothy Cross has worked in the Powerhouse, a disused power station near the docks in Dublin. Until 1975, this extraordinary building supplied much of the city’s electricity; once a hub of generation and power, it still contains its old machinery, and various abandoned personal belongings—echoes of an obsolete industry and of long-departed male workers. The Powerhouse resonates with memories of masculine authority. Within it, Cross has established a strong transformative presence.

When she had an exhibition in Philadelphia two years ago, a large-scale installation at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Cross titled it “Power House”—a play on the name of her studio. Many of the assemblages she showed in Philadelphia used objects found in or near that building; all of them can be said to have hinged on the revisioning of sexuality as a psychic construction rather than a form of immutable physiological difference. “Power House” also rested on a deliberate undermining of male authority.

At the center of the exhibition, a roomlike configuration, Parthenon, sat square on a raised platform, like its namesake in Athens. Wooden lockers appropriated from the Dublin power station formed two of its walls; the others were made of plywood, with peepholes in it. The lockers held personal detritus that had once belonged to the workmen—shoes, mugs, a picture of the Virgin Mary, a photograph of Hitler. Inside the structure was an old metal bed-frame set on a tiled white floor, and bearing a mattress made of bent wire. Integral to this mattress was a huge phallus, also made in twisted wire. Broken gauges and other paraphernalia surrounded the bed. The ditched flotsam of a male work-force signaled empty or fractured masculinity, while the male gaze, forced into its voyeuristic guise by the peepholes, was faced with conventional symbols of femininity—the sheltered interior space, the bed—transformed by their medium and empowered by their own phallus. This Parthenon (in Greek, the word means “virgin”) had been impregnated by her own “masculine” potency.

If “Power House” resolutely subverted masculinity and male strongholds, an earlier installation, “Ebb,” at Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery in 1988, explored the notion of what Carl Jung called “individuation”—the achievement of, among other things, a balance of male and female qualities. “Ebb” was a work populated by humanoid figments of uncertain gender, like Shark Lady in a Balldress, an enigmatic object made of cast and woven bronze, with a head that looked like a penis and breasts that could have been testicles. Was this a disturbing “anima” figure, a “devouring mother” symbol, or an “individuated” woman? As the artist observed at the time, “You don’t so much interpret dreams as . . . assimilate them.” Indisputably, however, the “female” figures in this show were more formidable than the “male.”

A new body of work, tentatively entitled “The Udder,” comprises similar images of immoderate “femininity,” for Cross’ current preoccupation is almost solely with “the other,” as the series’ punning title implies. A crucial influence in this regard has been Jane Gallop’s book Thinking through the Body, in which the author attempts to find ways to heal the “mind-body split” that she considers a chronic affliction in capitalist patriarchies. Gallop sees the body as a site of knowledge, a medium for thought; she has no wish to “dominate it by reducing it to the mind’s idealizing categories”—a tendency she believes typical of the European philosophical tradition. Instead, she struggles to fuse the physical and the cerebral, and to avoid the quandary of “the female postmodern thinker [who] finds herself in the dilemma of trying to be like Daddy who is trying to be a woman.”

It follows that Cross’ new sculptures are even more aggressive, iconoclastic, and provocatively physical than before. Amazon, 1992, for example, a mutant mannequin or dressmaker’s dummy covered in cow skin, has a single breast and a phallic nipple; while it clearly suggests the mythological female warrior of its name, its swollen mammary also evokes associations of pregnancy and motherhood. Amazon is confusing in its assertiveness, claiming “masculine” power while refusing to surrender “feminine” fecundity. Cowboys, 1992, another piece in the “Udder” series, is a saddled vaulting horse covered with cow skin and possessed of a prominent set of udders: an image of macho virility comically subverted—and replaced by a female body.

In their interrogation of sexual identity, these sculptures bring to mind the example of Louise Bourgeois, whose surrealistic objects and images are among Cross’ inspirations. The two artists don’t share much formally, but they do have in common a mordant sense of humor and a forceful ability to annihilate received opinions about the nature of sexuality. Bourgeois’ early “Femme Maison” paintings, 1946–47, replaced women’s heads with houses, as if to imply that their minds have been imprisoned by domesticity; Cross has vigorously pursued that thinking into new terrain, building new psychic structures on the deserted lot of obsolescent masculinity. The “Udder” series, with its incarnate “otherness,” sustains that momentum.

John Hutchinson