BACK TO THE FUTURE: REBECCA CROSS AT MASSILLON MUSEUM
Near the shore of an ocean—or along Lake Erie where the fiber artist Rebecca Cross lives during much of the year—the world is mainly water, topped with sky. Storm or calm above is reflected in the tone and motion of the waves, and the line between water and sky, the distinction, is often broken, though the long curve of difference remains intact, hidden in the mess of the moment. Similarly we have our own visible and obscure horizons. Our skin divides experience into inner and outer worlds, convulsed or calmed as constantly as the sea. Manifest also is the fact that this brief interface will erode and disappear: the self will soak into infinity.
Recently Rebecca Cross, known internationally for her exhibitions of shibori silk objects and installations, has moved in a different direction. Her new works document the plants and conditions of a real (or credible) present, from the standpoint of a distant future. These drawings on silk amount to a body of visual poetry, lyrical odes to beauty and transformation, infused with a sense of visual music. They propose a transcendental posture of mind that verges on science fiction. Her drawings, executed in charcoal or graphite on silk organza, trace the ghostly forms of husks from the natural world, the burgeoning weeds and wildflowers of our quickly vanishing present tense, as if they were discovered in a future archive thousands of years from now, the products of some unimaginable technology of visionary documentation. She suggests in this way a journey back and forth in time, imagining a period when all that’s left of us and our familiar fields will be fragments lingering piecemeal in the rock, and the remains of the wildflowers exploding with color and scent every summer during these years we know. The combination of materials and imagery traces a path toward the immaterial aboriginal spirit of aesthetics and depiction, mixing time into touch, suggesting a calculus of the senses.
In 2018 Cross received Massillon Museum’s exhibition prize at the first CAN Triennial, for her piece titled Gyre. Her new Suspended Animation works will be on view in an installation at Massillon Museum, May 8 through June 16. As of this writing the artist has completed about half of seven or eight large painting/drawings, which could be thought of as windows—wider views of a plausibly fictional present-time/future-time continuum. These 4 × 5-foot works, which will occupy the new annex adjacent to the Massillon Museum, are each composed of pastel lines drawn on two layers of silk, colored with aniline dyes in a twilight spectrum that runs from bruise to blush, brown and purple, through green to red. Titled Horizons, each is divided (more or less) into two ascending areas of greater and lesser density. Cross says, “They’re not trying to be landscapes per se: they’re reflections in and on the silk.”
In describing these organically inspired visions, Cross (who spent part of her childhood in Japan) uses the Japanese word hajime, which can mean many things, including “begin,” as at the start of a martial arts class. She also describes her new works as aleatory, which in combination with the Zen resonance of hajime suggests the coincidence of accident and design, the erasure of distance between act and intention, or beginning and end. Cross’s works are innovatively spiritual, combining a feminist sense of materiality and function with the observational acuteness of modern art and the contemporary world.
One of these Horizons that will debut at Massillon Museum is the darkest and most complex (to date). Smoky clouds of charcoal at the top serve as sky above a moody, shifting composition of massed umber and reddish ocher. It could depict a sunset or sunrise anywhere on earth with a marsh and dim margins of vegetation. In the latter age which Cross imagines, where these spirit-prints originate, this dun-colored vista might even be exobiological, looking backwards to the lost ages of distant planets. There is a strong whiff of chemistry here in the look of this piece, a subtext of process and scientific research carried by the underlying spreading blossoms of aniline hues, soaking into the weave of the double-hung, sheer organza. Life itself is a chemistry experiment of inconceivable length and titanic scale. Cross’s plant-haunted images also make a bow to the early nineteenth-century origins of photography, particularly the botanical cyanotypes of the Victorian pioneer photographer Anna Atkins.
Cross’s Horizon series is dense with the motion of materials and a bleeding multiplicity of form, hence the Suspended Animations title. The earth-toned work described above doesn’t lean heavily on bifurcation as its primary trope (though an interesting, horizon-like band that could be light-colored clouds gathered on a sort of horizon is a particularly vivid element in the composition). Lower down, several white pastel lines carry the most cogent sense of meaning and mystery as they wind across the elemental scene. One of these traces a segmented path made of short arcs, while another on the right is basically a dotted line. Several more loop and track, more inscribed across the field of vision than integral to the scene, like arcane field notes or surveyor’s jottings. They might even be stitches of a sort, binding the present to the future, punctuation marks for a time-scape—though they also are timeless, like prehistoric marks on desert rock faces.
Cross plans to suspend a cloud of found, felted lake stones at the Massillon show, hanging from the ceiling of Gallery M by thin individual wires. The rocks vary in size from a few inches up to a foot. Something like small clouds, they could be travelers from interplanetary space, objects caught in gravity’s universal spell. Like the wet-dry antitheses of her works on silk, these rocks explore the powerful energies of opposites. Heavy yet defying gravity, smooth and cold for ages in the waters of the lake, now encased in dyed-wool roving that evokes ideas of organic warmth and insulating density, the stones embody the essence of difference. They are perhaps also markers like the small stones traditionally placed on graves, representing both presence and absence, standing in for the airy weight of souls. Utilizing the gallery’s upper space—its sky—and lighting, the floating stones are an important addition to the work.
Rebecca Cross is an accomplished polymath whose visual essays partake of a very wide cultural world. There are hints of musical composition in her rhythms and notational mark making, and of literature and poetry in the grain of her visual thinking. Entering one of her ever more profound installations, her audiences find themselves in a sanctuary where natural forces and the attentive powers of the human hand and brain are summoned, testifying to great loveliness and significance, surrounding us regardless of the time or the planet.