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Featured: Grace Cross’ Dark Wit And Contemporary Primitivism

Born in Harare, Zimbabwe, in the late eighties, Grace Cross spent her childhood growing up in India, America and South Africa. This formative cultural mêlée has had a lasting effect on Grace, and remains a core inspiration in her painting. Drawing off her so-called “playful heritage spawned from multiple identities”, her work re-works cultural references, rituals, mythologies and historical instances. Grace considers herself a kind of archaeologist, excavating primeval images through the act of painting. “I gather symbols together to create immersive environments, like the setting of a stage, or preparation for a ritual; ordered to reveal only part of a story. These environments have an unsystematizable sensory experience. This disordered experience plies apart space where the magic of history and its portentous healing power can be created, through the polysemy of myth, place-setting ritual, and ruptured communication.” Grace has her BFA from Michaelis School of Fine Art and is currently pursuing her MFA at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Grace’s solo show, Pleasuring Ground, at SMITH Gallery is a wondrously discordant Eden in which she weaves (literally in this instance as she incorporates felt into some of the works in this show) archaic narratives of her own divining that explore the carnal nature of humans. We spoke with Grace ahead of her show to learn more about hybrid identities and mythological artefacts.  

9 Grace Cross_Eden Faceoff_2013_Oil on paper

Eden Faceoff

16 Grace Cross_Claw Bush_2013_Oil on canvas

Claw Bush

20 Grace Cross_Apparition Eden_2013_Oil on canvas

Apparition Eden

Have you always painted, or was it a process of dabbling before finding your happy medium?  

Yes, I have always enjoyed the happy mess paint affords me. Paint is such an animated medium, it is sloppy, slippery and allows for me to constantly rework it; it adheres to chance elements. No irrevocable mistakes can be made whilst painting; it’s all experimentation and play. I love the medium because it allows you to pull it to its limit (where pigment falls apart) or push its embodied qualities (in thickly applied flesh-like mounds).    

When you’re not painting, what are some of the things you like to spend your time doing?  

Whether painting, reading, talking to friends, creating home industries, walking, gardening, thrifting, or travelling, I tend to have an intense way of doing things. I throw myself, full bodied, into most activities. Whether it is toiling a compost pile, or making a 10-dish curry meal for my friends, I maintain a high level of energy.    

When you were little, what did you imagine yourself growing up to be?  

All I wanted was to be Pamela Anderson, big boobed and wet haired, whose prix de resistance would be performing experimental Shakespearean plays to crowds of people. In retrospect, this seems more like a night terror than a dream career.  

1 Grace Cross_Jesters_2013_Oil on paper


2 Grace Cross_Symptom_2014_Oil on canvas


Your work is visceral, yet simultaneously obviously carefully considered. What attracts and appeals to you about this somewhat incongruous juncture?  

I try to tease out a powerful ambiguousness in every work I make. Things should seem unstable, vibrating, figures changing from one expression to another. I find this transitive visual space to be a rich area of investigation.    

Please share with us a little about how you’ve developed your style – significant impressions, realisations, trajectories or influences that have shaped your practice along the way.  

I think I’ve learnt most things through making mistakes, trying, failing, and trying again. Most of my shaping influences stem from my upbringing and growing up in different places and in cultures around the world. I got my visual education visiting galleries, craft markets, and through travel from a very early age. I feel like a sponge; I keep absorbing visual encounters I have, and have had.    

What ideas and themes have you been working with, and how do these translate in the works on your upcoming show?  

The work in my upcoming show investigates humorous metamorphoses situated in a somewhat discordant Eden. Some of the themes I am working with are death, birth, the human figure in turbulence (being jostled, shaped, cultured, dominated, subjected), nostalgia, loss, and the mechanics of story-telling. In the increasingly chaotic, global world my practice represents its fractures. My work is embedded with a sense of playful heritage spawned from multiple identities.  

10 Grace Cross_Mother Tongue_2014_Oil on paper

Mother Tongue

8 Grace Cross_Martyr_2014_Oil on paper


What appeals to you about felt, and how does working with it compare to painting?  

I like to work with paint, and what I see as its sister material, animal fibre. I hand-dye wool, and masticate it into felted forms, within the painted surface of the canvas or in more sculptural manifestations. Both mediums have transformative qualities for me, which I see as their corporeal quality to reveal and obliterate their subject. I think there is something essential and necessary working with a material that is shorn from an animal, and whose natural curl is impossible to matt out. Felt also has a rich art historical and crafted history, which I like my work to dialogue with.    

Some of the colour, pattern and imagery in your work references traditional craft and artefacts. Please tell us about this stylistic and conceptual choice.  

I guess the colours and patterns in my painting are residues from my visual and cultural identity. Craft, traditionally, is used to tell stories. I use the South African tradition of telling stories within a contemporary practice, working from a myriad of symbolic imagery. Painted pattern in my work references the rich field of African textiles, which is a huge influence on me.  

12 Grace Cross_Joker_2012_Handmade felt


11 Grace Cross_ Totem (detail)_2014_Oil on canvas

Totem (detail)

18 Grace Cross_ Guillotine of Three_2013_Oil on paper

Guillotine of Three

15 Grace Cross_Collar of Shame_2013_Oil on canvas

Collar of Shame

What are some of the symbols and allegories that appear in your work?  

A lot of the stories I tell have to do with the carnal nature of humans; seen through the personification of animals, of birth and life, and of the erotic violence of being human. I like to think of myself as a painting archaeologist excavating images of the past in the present to imagine a future-story. Myth is a reviving language that helps me coalesce and make sense of the hidden forces around me.    

Does narrative play a part in your artistic process, and if so, what are some of the stories that you’re telling?    

Yes, story-telling is a huge part of my work. I am interested in creating new narratives told through images, pulled from different sources. I drag images from my personal experiences, images from historical events, images of strange and unwielding occurrences, and weave them together on the canvas. Together these images map curious narratives of my own creation, out of the real world’s cultures and mythologies.  

21 Grace Cross_Ark (bible detail)_2014_Oil on canvas

Ark (bible detail)

19 Grace Cross_the hanging_2013_Oil on paper

The Hanging

Which artists’ and writers’ works are you most inspired by (either at this moment in time, or longstanding)?  

Joseph Beuys, Oyvind Falstrom, Cecily Brown, Gladys Nilsson, El Enatsui, Martin Ramirez, Robert Morris, Anish Kapoor (his use of red!), Amy Sillman, Phillip Guston, Cy Twombly, Edvard Munch, Matthew Monahan, Forrest Best, Hilma af Klint, Ben Okri, Amos Tutuola.    

What is something someone might be surprised to find out about you?  

I am a lizard and I’m a liar.    

Anything else you would like to add…  

Yes! Please come to my show Pleasuring Ground at the new SMITH Gallery, opening night is on Tuesday, 31st March at 6pm. The show will run until the 30th April.  

22 Grace Cross_Chomp_2013_Oil on paper


3 Grace Cross_Divident_2013_Oil on canvas


GC_Alas for the Tropics!_2014_medium

Alas for the Tropics!

17 Grace Cross_Eyecon_2014_Oil on canvas


5 Grace Cross_Dog Lettuce_2014_Oil on canvas

Dog Lettuce

14 Grace Cross_Baby Scale_2013_Oil on canvas

Baby Scale

13 Grace Cross_Baby in T (detail)_2013_Oil on canvas

Baby in T (detail)



7 Grace Cross_Madonnas_2013_Oil on paper


6 Grace Cross_Boxer_2013_Oil on canvas



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