Like seventeenth-century wunderkammers, which divvied up the things of the world into “naturalia” and “artificialia”, the work of the Irish artist Dorothy Cross seeks balance between the natural and the manipulated, things found in the attic and things found on the beach. To say she works with sculpture, photography, and video gives rather the wrong impression, suggesting too heavy a thumb on the artificialia side of the scale. Often her interventions are minimal: two dead snakes, intertwined, to which she added a silver cast of their hearts; a 19th century bible found in her family house, through which she drilled a large hole, cover-to-cover.
The portfolio Tear began with a page that fell out of that bible (and thereby avoided the drill bit). It contained a steel engraving of Ary Sheffer’s early 19th century depiction of Ruth bidding farewell to Naomi, a popular piece of early Victorian piety. Cross isolated and enlarged small details of the engraving: a supplicating hand, an ear, a tear rolling down a cheek. She then merged these with photographs of waves breaking over the rocks near her home on the west coast of Ireland. Sheffer’s image is a monument to Victorian sensibilities, at once rigid and maudlin and heartbreaking nonetheless; Cross is an accomplished nature photographer, and her images of the sea are captivating in their own right. The engraving and the surging sea are not crudely abutted but interlaced. Sea foam reaches up and into the yellowed paper of the engraving, splashes the nape of a neck; the engraving appears to float and then sink into the surf. Technically, the prints are a marvel: a merger of digital cunning, manual know-how, and specially made inks.
As techniques of representation go, few are more unnatural than the dot-and-line syntax of engraving, while few aspects of nature are more defiant of human intention than the ocean. The collision of control and abandon, of Victorian super-ego and Oceanic id, is quietly—almost secretly—spectacular.