In 1990 Cross travelled to Norway where she happened to see in a local museum a traditional sieve made from a stretched cow's udder. The skin had been pierced to allow the passage of grain, while the teats stood upright in the sieve. The object fascinated the artist who, on her return to Ireland, began to work with cow skins. She has said, 'Seeing that a cow could be used for something other than producing milk was a total revelation. Using udders makes me feel a cross between a butcher and a scientist. The whole process generates a strange mixture of disgust, hilarity and excitement. It wasn't until later that I remembered that Freud had spoken about the symbolism of cows' udders, in Dora's case history'. (Paul Bonaventura, 'Even Dorothy Cross', in Even: Recent Work by Dorothy Cross, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini, Bristol 1996, p.16. Freud described an udder as 'an image intermediate between a nipple and a penis'.)
Many of the ideas and methods used by Cross evoke parallels with Surrealist art. Cross herself has linked Virgin Shroud to a work by the Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim, Object (For Breakfast), 1936, a piece which consists of a teacup, saucer and spoon, given a mysterious animal presence by a fur covering. Cross's work is also informed by issues relating to gender and cultural identity. In this work - one of four to date that make use of a full hide - the cow's skin evokes a traditional division of labour (men skin cows, women milk them). It also suggests a parallel between the function of cows and the role of feeding and nurturing traditionally ascribed to women. The cowskin, which hangs like a veil over the figure, can be seen as preventing the figure from speaking or communicating, making it seem akin to a 'dumb animal'. At the same time, the presence of the teats around the head suggests a crown. The title confirms that the figure can be associated with the Virgin Mary, whom the artist has described as frequently represented within Catholic Irish culture as 'the perfect woman'. Originally, Cross wanted to drape the skin over a real statue of the Virgin Mary. However, she was unable to find one of the right size, and instead created an armature using a steel dress rack, wooden templates and a plaster 'head'. The satin train, spread out in front of the figure, was made from the train of the wedding dress of the artist's grandmother, given to Cross when she was a teenager.
Tessa Jackson, 'Earlier Work', in Even: Recent Work by Dorothy Cross, exhibition catalogue, Arnolfini, Bristol, Feb.-Apr. 1996, pp.8-9, reproduced in colour p.7
Technique and condition
The sculpture was made at the artist's studio in Ireland. According to the artist, the Fresian cow hide was tanned/cured using sodium borate (Borax) by James Gregory in County Wicklow. While still damp and pliable from the curing process, the cow hide was draped over a pre-formed dome of blanket-and muslin-covered plaster. The four teats on the udder that stand on the top of on the head were shaped and packed with muslin to help retain their shape. The cowhide is draped over a sub-frame adapted from an old painted steel dress rack on four castors. At shoulder and hip level the internal wood and steel supports have been padded out to give shape and support to the draped hide.
Below the draped cow hide is a muslin skirt and cream silk satin bridal train. The muslin is gathered and attached with rusting nails to the top part of the sub-frame and falls to 200mm above floor level where it ends in a stitched hem. There are numerous rust stains in the muslin, probably caused by contact with the wet hide and iron sub-frame when the piece was made. From her grandmother's eighty-year old wedding dress the artist cut and stitched a detachable round ended train that drapes on the floor behind the figure. When attached to the two large buttons stitched to the underside of the cow hide, the train hangs over the muslin skirt.
Prior to acquisition some of the holes and tears sustained during the flaying and curing process of the hide have been stitched with string and there is evidence of hair loss in places. The artist has said the teats in the cow hide were oiled several times with various oils including baby oil and vegetable oil, to prevent blanching and drying of the skin. The hide is now stiff, dry and stable but prior to acquisition when preservative salts crystallised on the surface, they were brushed off by the artist.
The artist accepts the work will slowly change with time (correspondance with artist 1995). The existing holes in the satin train are acceptable to the artist, but in future if the fabric deteriorates, she would like them mended (satin material from the same source as the original has been supplied by the artist). The satin can be dry-cleaned when necessary. Early signs of moth infestation were noticed on the cowhide while on display at The Tate Gallery, Liverpool in l997, and subsequently treated by prolonged deep freezing.
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