Dorothy Cross

The Model

Installed in a warren of rooms, this recent miniretrospective of Dorothy Cross’ work usefully charted the progress of her practice over the past decade. While Cross’ characteristically inventive manipulation of found and fashioned objects yields a seductive formal heterogeneity, she has remained true to certain primary investigations, such as the construction of gender, the anatomy of desire, and the volatility of symbol and metaphor. What distinguishes her work from that of other artists with similar concerns is her unusually productive oscillation between the private and the public—her persistent willingness to range from locally inflected iconography to more universally charged symbolism.

This is as true of the earliest work that was included in the show as it is of more recent pieces. The solemnly ludicrous Mr. and Mrs. Holyjoe, 1988, ably represents Cross’ 1988 exhibition “Ebb” at Dublin’s Douglas Hyde Gallery, an exhibition that wittily excoriated some of the pieties of Catholic Ireland. Yet the same show also included work with a far less specific focus. A case in point is Shark Lady in a Ball Dress, 1988, a pint-sized, cast-bronze portion of a shark, perched on a voluminous woven-bronze dress and gamely parading both its male and female aspects for all the world to see.

A similarly ambitious attempt to shuttle between cultural specificity and the collective unconscious characterizes the punningly titled “Udder” (“udder” is pronounced not unlike “other,” at least in Ireland) series of the early ’90s, which might reasonably be subtitled “A hundred and One Improbable Uses for a Cured Cowhide.” In Freud’s Couch, 1993, a limp and wrinkled cowhide is draped over a psychiatrist’s couch preposterously suspended a few inches above ground-level on a makeshift wooden frame. The deceased cow’s teats bristle out of the spot where the analysand’s head should lie, while at crotch-level an eighteen-inch solid glass penis lolls dumbly but provocatively on the couch, its evident fragility at odds with its overblown self-importance. Freud’s Couch relies for its effect on little more than a basic familiarity with the popular representation of analysis, something that can be safely assumed in most contexts in which it is likely to be shown. An installation such as Croquet, 1994, which has been exhibited in a variety of locations in Britain and Ireland, as well as the United States, is a different matter entirely. The significance of this work no doubt varies considerably according to viewers’ familiarity with the national and class-cultural associations of the lawn-game to which its title refers.

Over the past few years Cross’ udders and cowhides have been superseded by a variety of stuffed snakes, with, if anything, a consequent raising of the symbolic stakes. Yet her treatment of these enduring objects of fear and fascination is notably tender. In Lover, Rattlesnakes, 1996, two literally heartless rattlers (their hearts have been removed and cast in silver) entwine in an eternal embrace that is at once deathly and death-defying. A comparable ambivalence is illustrated by an untitled photographic work from 1995 that at first glance appears to be a simple X-ray image of a human skull. Closer inspection reveals a human fetus nestling in its cranial cavity. This work seems to represent either the threat of a macabre, deadly malignancy or the metaphoric dreaming of a future life.

Caoimhín Mac Giolla Léith