New York

Dorothy Cross

With slight but unnerving displacements, Dorothy Cross transforms the pristine space of the gallery into sometimes erotic, sometimes terrifying environments. Her most recent installation, Inheritance, 1995, began with an isolated X ray of a skull. Nestled in the brainpan, as if in a womb, was an unborn child. This image could be read in two ways: either as a metaphor for the coming generation, whose traits are bound to be as much an imprint of psychological as of physical union; or, on a more macabre note, as signs of new life encased in a symbol of death. This ambiguity set the tone of the installation: the objects Cross displays are closely linked to particular times and places but also portend something of the future.

In the main gallery, a natty tapestry screen buttressed one wall of a small brick enclosure that had been dropped into the middle of the space. An adaptation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, the tapestry depicted an allegorical scene in which a young man arrives in town astride a donkey and then, amid the jeers and fingerpointing of the local peasantry, offers an old man a lift. On the back of the brick structure hung an effigy of the peasants’ judgment: a dried udder that had been formed into a cover for the index finger—an item worn by the artist herself in a series of photographs. It is a horrific object, this shriveled teat, made no less so in being coolly functional, harnessed to the artist’s pretty hand.

Though these objects resonated with mute condemnation, the story behind the locals’ angry reaction to the peasantry was obscured by allegory or walled up, perhaps, in the little house, which could not be entered—an architectural version of Freud’s screen memories. Guarding the details of a specific incident behind a concrete barrier, this apertureless house seemed to contain a suppressed scream whose eerie echo hung over the family Bible lying open on the floor to an engraving of the three Marys outside the Sepulchre. A hole bored through the holy book transformed it into a spectacularly profane Dutch Wife. Resting on a battered bench, a cast-silver iris displayed a bloom in full (female) flower, its tuberlike end suggestive of male genitalia.

In Cross’ sculpture, male and female attributes coexist in an almost natural disharmony. Combining her surreal, pastoral visions with the suggestiveness of Louise Bourgeois’ psychosexual tableaux, Cross searches for the violent currents that run through not only our personal but also our collective histories. This is nowhere more evident than in the cast-silver iris: etymologically, this flower is linked to violence (the family name for iris is gladiolus, the Latin word for sword), visually, it speaks of the continuum that links the male and the female. For Cross, local lore is steeped in violence, which not only infuses but shapes tradition. As mysterious as faith and as difficult to eradicate as guilt, our violent impulses are so ingrained as to have become virtually abstract, what gave rise to them long since forgotten.

Ingrid Schaffner