Two exhibitions that seem, on first impressions, worlds apart have opened, simultaneously, at Turner Contemporary, Margate. Dorothy Cross Connemara and Turner And Constable: Sketching From Nature, Works from The Tate Collection straddle an almost two-century gap, contemporary mixed-media on one side, Romantic painting on the other. However, despite their differences, the two exhibitions complement one another well. The organic, poetic and quietly thoughtful works of Dorothy Cross conjure the smell of salt air and visions of the sea. Tabernacle (2013), a video installation, for example, brings the sound of waves crashing into the gallery space. The physical elements of Cross’ exhibition too, composed mainly of materials taken from the shore – sundried sharkskin, stretched over the shell of an eroded boat, the bones of a whale, strung up over a rusted bucket – carry with them, even within the sterile context of the gallery, the memory of their place of origin. Cross’ exhibition slips, quite effortlessly, into the other, Turner And Constable: Sketching From Nature, in which, through heavy, dark and rich oils, landscape and seascape are obsessively represented and reproduced.
Dorothy Cross initially moved to Connemara, Ireland to dive; however, her work focuses more on the touch and resulting erosion of sea on landscape, and the debris spat out by the ocean, rather than the life beneath it. In Connemara, Cross never attempts to represent the sea, nor harness it, as do Turner and Constable. In fact, whereby images of the sea reappear in a mass of variety in the works of the latter pair, it is, almost, absent from Cross’ exhibition. The ocean, rather, has a more ghostly and suggested presence in the latter. In Searchlight (2008), a pair of two Giclee prints, for example, a helicopter searchlight scans the ocean for a missing person. The images are, in a sense, seascapes but the sea itself is very almost lost in complete darkness, only visible in circular spots of harsh white, like little glistening ponds, where the spotlights hit the water. Another photograph, Slyne Steps (2013), depicts a set of heavily eroded stairs, carved into coastal rock. The sea, once again, is not explicitly present in this piece; only its memory and affect is here. The stairs have become, through being worn down by both the sea and feet, organic in appearance, their lines like the markings of a fossil or the pleats of a whale’s underside. Cross’ photographs of landscapes such as Slyne Steps and, also, Killary Harbour (2013), in which lines like scars ripple across the ground, mirror her images of a beached whale which, lying unmoving and gutted, resembles a landscape, too, in a sense, bearing, carved on its side, what so many rock-faces, cliffs and floors bear too: graffiti.
There are, in this exhibition, connections drawn, across the country, between Conemarra and Margate. Tabernacle, in which shallow, dark waters flood into and then pull back from a cave, to and from the sea, is paired with a video of Margate’s Shell Grotto, an underground labyrinth of tunnels covered in shells. In these two works, and many others too, the invisible presence of sea is coupled with a more ominous presence of humans; the sea is lost in the shadows of the cave in Tabernacle, and its memory, imprinted on shells, is laid out, organised, by ghosts of our ancestors in Shell Grotto. Further, semblances of human life appear elsewhere: lost at sea in Searchlight, creator in Slyne Steps and defacer in Whale.
The gaps in Conemarra, left behind by traces of sea and human, are perhaps what gives Cross’ work its eerie, haunting, yet poetic nature. The obsessive reproductions of sea and land by Turner and Constable, at first seem to fill this gap and give Cross’ elusive subject a more solid and palpable form. However, with the vast ocean spreading out beyond the window from the foot of Turner Contemporary itself, extending far, far out to the horizon, the small oils, glistening on the walls seem to lose some of their truth and realism. It becomes clear, when confronted with the reality of the sea, that the ocean, like in the works of Cross, isn’t at all present in the works of Turner and Constable either; only its memory lingers on.
Dorothy Cross and Turner and Constable exhibitions, 5 October until 5 January. Turner Contemporary, Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, CT9 1HG. www.turnercontemporary.org
Image: Dorothy Cross, Everest Shark, bronze, Meadow Arts Commission 2013 Courtesy the artist and Meadow Arts and Stephen White.