In the Shadow World of Jennifer Cross

At MM Fine Art in Southampton
In “Vanitas,” a small oil painting on wood from 2017, Jennifer Cross makes a direct correlation between her still lifes and those of Dutch old masters, who painted meditations on death.

In a long career of painting and art making, Jennifer Cross’s style and subject matter have remained generally consistent. The recent paintings on view at MM Fine Art in Southampton do indicate some shifts, but it might be that we are the ones who have changed.

There has always been a brooding and mysterious quality to her work. In her latest paintings on wood, many of the landscapes have become interiors, and the compositions have become sparer, sparser. Some of these trends had established themselves as early as 2013, according to the examples in the exhibition, but are prevalent in the majority of the works on view, mostly painted from 2016 to 2018.

In a political and cultural climate in which humanity can be said to be devalued or invisible in the public square — gun violence has increased­ and tribalism proliferates — her subtle figures, ghostlike or sometimes even skeletal, are strikingly resonant. It’s hard not to think of places like Syria or Yemen, where ruthless civil war has killed thousands and threatens millions with starvation.

The barren landscape of “The Three Fates,” from 2016 to 2018, where not only humans but vegetation is otherworldly or spectral, could be an abandoned battlefield or bombing site. The “Fates” dancing off to the side are indicated in only the faintest of white outlines, commemorating an event that has already happened or one recently ordained. The outlines of a skull occupy one of three transparent cubes, and another longer box shape suggests a coffin. 

A blurred and clothed female figure stands off the right to bear witness, and a faintly outlined tribal figure in a loincloth strikes a pose that might be literal or symbolic. An actual, fully realized crane is one of the only signs of corporeality here. The crane, if it is that, has a symbolic function in Asian societies to signify longevity. Here, the bird looks as if it is doomed to outlive a world that may never come again.

Ms. Cross told The Star in 1999 that her early Catholic education affected her paintings. “That Catholic mysticism has a big influence when you’re so young,” she said. “The rituals, the lives of the saints — it was all very powerful. So the paintings are a way of coming to terms with that past. In this context, the mysticism feels more like a judgment or a sentencing. We are bound to live in this shadowy world that we made.” 

There are a few other landscapes. “Rise,” an undated work, describes a U-shaped and shallow horizon with an abandoned lintel, arch, or doorway painted only suggestively. Again the ground looks seared or incapable of supporting flora or fauna, the sky a perpetual dusky haze. “Paris” is a moody reflection on the city, rendered in the blues, violets, and mauves of late twilight. A tiny Eiffel Tower in the distance anchors the Seine as it recedes toward it.

“Non Finito” appears to be a cityscape not unlike Miami or San Juan with its palmlike trees and a set of carnival-ride swings occupying much of the right third of the panel. The trees bow in the wind as if in a hurricane, and there is a trough that looks to be spewing water. Perhaps it is Italy, the origin of the title, a term that describes an intentionally unfinished work of art, typically sculpture. Yet the hard lines of the buildings and streetscape suggest the New World much more than the Old. Is it the painting or the subject that is unfinished — maybe not incomplete so much as resolute in refusing to succumb to the storm?

The interiors carry even more psychological freight, their often light or bright colors belying a feeling of unease or emptiness. Two paintings suggest escape or departure. Although the title “Exit Routes,” from 2016, carries the suggestion of future escape, a skeleton guarding the window portends otherwise. The grand spiral staircase and door ajar even out the odds of a successful egress, but the space beyond the doorway is a dark one. 

“Way Out,” from this year, has a more urgent connotation. Not only does the title imply an immediate need, but the darkened hallway opening to a light-filled space beyond promises a better outcome than the previous painting. Still, the stairs don’t lead up to a defined door, and it is not quite clear that they lead to anything. Both are rather moody, and it is not a huge leap to wonder whether these escape routes are meditations on “shuffling off this mortal coil.”

Another work laden with suggested meaning is “Every 100 Miles the World Changes,” from last year. Although a landscape is depicted, it is one that is piecemeal and disorganized. Instead of ghostly figures outlined in white, it is populated with small figures composed of shadows. A burning vehicle spurs two of these figures to action. Off to the left in the background, another appears to be beating something with a large tree branch. This all takes place in surroundings that include fragments of classical architecture, spindly trees, mesas, a tall thin building with trees on top, and a rendering of the boy’s face from Matisse’s “Piano Lesson” as a fragment settled at the bottom. A set of segmented circles with smaller concentric centers implies someone taking aim.

Even her floral still lifes have taken on a more direct reference to death. It is no longer enough to portray flowers in a vase and hope that viewers will understand the connection to mortality. She now depicts them as “Vanishing Flowers” or places a skull nearby and calls one “Vanitas” after the Dutch still-life painting tradition that also took mortality as its theme. While always beautiful, they are tinged with an emptiness and regret.

The paintings will remain on view through Saturday