The type of landscape painting that Darthea Cross does has a history behind it which might be subtitled “from allegory to entropy.” Like all the best contemporary landscape painting, one becomes aware of the expectations concerning the experience and contemplation of nature we bring to it, and the limits of what we tend to derive from a direct experience and contemplation of nature. Given what the great landscape artists of the past expected from nature, based on the agendas they brought to nature, Cross’ work asks, “Do we have to leave our visits to nature feeling disappointed?” In response, her work is infused with an optimism for her genre, based on the understanding that we need not approach nature for spiritual, scientific or even environmentalist lessons and that being shorn of these encumbrances, in its liberation from our willful approach to it, nature possesses a stark reality of engagement that can provide a wholly personal experience, a presence of nature divorced from cultural expectations, a phenomenology of stones as opposed to sermons in the stones.
And this our life exempt from public haunt finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in the stones and good in everything.
(From Shakespeare’s As You Like It)
Dutch painters created the genre of landscape painting, in the West, around the time when Shakespeare wrote these lines about leaving the city and experiencing nature so that trees, brooks and stones could produce speech, books and sermons for us. Nature had been used as a source of symbolic and allegorical meanings before the Dutch, and later the German and English Romantics, began searching for something ineffable in nature which would transcend symbolism. When Shakespeare wrote of the sermons that could be conveyed through rock or stone, they were predicated on the perceived permanence or eternal nature of rock that empowered it with special spiritual meaning within a cultural tradition. Read closely and you will see that the Tower of Babel collapses only because it was built of inferior materials (brick and slime) and not of stone and mortar. In the turning of water into wine, the containers which are filled with water, allowing a mystical transformation, were hewn of rock. You drink wine, the blood of God, and become joyous, forgiving, tolerant and kind – the drinking of wine represented a behavioral transformation. The understanding of rock, early on, was as a symbol for part of a transformational process forming the core of the mystical aspect of the Christian religion.
So, looking at landscapes in the past was easy – you found allegories in them that mirrored your culturally inspired spiritual belief. With the Romantics, rock changed and you either experienced the sublime, the beautiful or the picturesque, which alleged to obviate cognition and meaning altogether, but still retained spiritual aspects (as in the work of Casper David Friedrich). After Darwin and further scientific study, however, we learned that nature was older than 4,500 years and not what we thought nature to be at all, and that nature was, in fact, constant change and merciless competition. Rocks were no longer eternal and went through their own cycles of creation, destruction and remolding. Rocks are constantly cracking, breaking up into sediments, being crushed back into other forms. Despite this cycle of regeneration, Robert Smithson ultimately saw entropy when he looked at nature and said, “The strata of the Earth is a jumbled museum. Embedded in the sediments is a text containing limits and boundaries which evade the rational order, and social structures which confine art.”
Darthea Cross’ work, to me, is a type of response to Smithson, like an unfurling or reconfiguration of his spiral jetty, like taking stones and rocks out of his set pieces and returning them back to nature, where they came from. Smithson’s awareness of entropy caused him to create images of entropy until he became trapped in a reinforcing feedback loop of his own making. He began seeking entropy in nature instead of approaching nature untainted by ideology each time. Losing our capacity to impute meaning in the presence of nature is a novel experience in itself. To stand before nature, without a belief system or preconceived ideas, is a phenomenological experience and what appeals to me the most in regard to Cross’ work is this constant freshness in her relationship to the rocks on the coast of Maine that she paints, and how this guilelessness translates into the contours and lines and soft colors of the pieces themselves.
Cross told me, “I found the inspiration for my current body of work at a cove in mid-coast Maine. My paintings reflect the various rock formations along the coast and in the mountains throughout the state. As with all my work, these paintings are a visual chronicle of my continued exploration of the deep silence within nature, as well as within ourselves. These moments of quietude offer a glimpse, a reflection, of the profound wholeness of which everything is a part. I am intrigued by the interplay of color and line in each of the parts, whether that part is a close observation of a tidal pool and a rock crevice or a distant view of a mountain peak or valley. Each of my paintings begins by following nature and never completely leaves the natural context. Realistic contour lines provide an entry point for the viewer; other lines establish a sense of the abstract by creating flat or formless spaces. Similarly, the color scheme originates in nature but is not confined to it. As I work I am reliving the walk – the location of the subject matter – and I am reminded of the duality between the fragility of nature and its power and magnitude.”
Cross’ work is visually arresting, our eyes want us to linger over the images. She has been stopped in her tracks by this scenery, attracted to continually work with it and stops us in the process. She has begun moving toward greater and greater abstraction based on her work dealing with the rocks of Maine and it is a type of abstraction that avoids the ambiguity which leads to discomfort, confusion and anxiety and, instead, leads to an even greater desire to engage the natural world. Viewing her landscapes becomes the subtle and longing pain of desire itself, the hope that some deeper meaning may, indeed, be possible after all.