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.

Further reading:
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

Jennifer Mundy
March 1997