Art Review: Nancy Spero’s Liberating Imagery

Political art offers up distinctive rewards, chief among them the opportunity to be outraged. Through art, we can viscerally connect to injustice, often in ways we otherwise can not. To contemplate artist and feminist Nancy Spero’s handprinted collages is to experience such a rupture: no matter what we have learned about women’s suffering and marginalization, there is no substitute for the raw emotions her works elicit.

Which is not to suggest that Spero, who died in 2009, focused on depicting the experiences of a “universal woman.” From 1976 on, women became the only subject of her art, yet one of Spero’s strengths was that she did not generalize about what it means to be female. Instead, by drawing our attention to historical instances of violence, her collages invite us to consider the scope and scale of gender-based oppression as it has transpired in specific times and places. The result is a body of work that is deeply nuanced and complicated in its assertions about power.

A recent solo show at Galerie LeLong in Chelsea provided a welcome chance to see 17 of Spero’s later works. The first five collages in the exhibition “From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s and 1990s” offered devastatingly explicit commentary on political violence against women, establishing one of the central concerns animating this period in Spero’s ouevre.

Among these works on torture and banishment, the collage “Argentina” (1981) includes excerpts from an Amnesty International report describing the treatment of political detainees during the “dirty war” that had begun in the 1970s: “The fact that a woman prisoner was pregnant never led to her getting any sort of consideration under torture.” The stark text is overprinted with images of fleeing women and figures with their faces obscured, yet the composition of the collage feels precise and restrained. This tension between form and content is further heightened by the contrast between how banal the typewritten text looks and the horror of what it conveys.

In hues ranging from the earthy browns of “Life Dance” (1995) to the saturated reds and blues of “Picasso and Frederick’s of Hollywood” (1995), ink and gouache achieve an antic vibrancy in Spero’s hands. These are works of great beauty, which can be disquieting given their content. Additionally, her technique of repeating images, both within single works and from one work to another, creates a sense of narrative. In “Vietnamese Women” (1985), the viewer confronts a single image of a walking woman reprinted more than two dozen times on scrolls of paper measuring 14 feet across. One image has been manipulated, however, with the woman’s right arm raised higher than in the original. She appears to be pointing out of the frame, as if gesturing the way forward – an effect as startling as it is moving. While we may not know their destination, these women are forging ahead.

Can anger sustain politics, or do we also need hope? Spero’s brilliance was her insistence on the existence of both. While there is much in the content of her work to enrage us, there is also a profound sense of freedom in her late-career mash-ups of historical and mythical imagery. The five panel expanse of “The Goddess Nut II” (1990) achieves a monumentality of both scale and subject matter. At 84 by 110 inches, the vertical panels are collaged with images including the Egyptian sky goddess Nut, the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, and figures of running women, which Spero repeated elsewhere in her work. Far from seeming arbitrary, the overall effect of these juxtapositions is one of movement and, ultimately, celebration.

While the exhibition at Galerie LeLong has closed, you can find out more about artist Nancy Spero in the “Protest” episode of Art in the Twenty-First Century, A PBS series on contemporary art and artists:

You may also want to check out this stunning reanimation of Spero’s 1979 work “Notes in Time,” created by Seth Erickson for TripleCanopy, with text by Christopher Lyon.