Historical Journal


Nancy Spero

February 17, 1991
Rosetta Brooks

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Images of procreation and pornography have often struck me as being not that dissimilar. After all, sexuality is at the root of both activities. But like the act of killing, it is the prevailing social, moral or political position-taking that determines whether we call killing murder or execution. In 1957, Georges Bataille examined the same moral imperatives and boundaries imposed on death and sensuality in his book I’Erotisme. The line is a fine one:
“The desire to kill relates to the taboo on murder in just the same way as does the desire for sexual activity to the complex of prohibitions limiting it. Sexual activity is only forbidden in certain cases, but then so is murder ……”
War and sex, the battle for sexual identity and the sexuality of warfare have been ever-present strands running through Nancy Spero’s art since the 1950s. Consider the following examples of two works by Spero, separated by almost twenty years:
I. A helicopter, carrying wounded U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, spirals up into the sky. The metallic surface of the aircraft and the clear blue sky merge. Like a supernatural apparition, a mother-goddess, the great chopper ascends from the earth carrying off its flesh and blood fledglings. We see the helicopter from the tribal vantage point of the Vietnamese; it is both a bringer of destruction as well as a savior of life.
In the ambiguity of the image (from Spero’s ‘War’ series, 1966-70), the archetypal is revealed in the rootless world of 20th century technology and communication.
II. A procession of females dance across a white wall. Some are clustered together in groups, others are solitary, isolated. Some of the silhouettes are instantly recognizable, others less so. The familiar flowing gait of a healthy,
young athlete’s body in full stride is pitted against a crouching, naked female. One arm is held aloft behind the back, the other is between her legs. Both hands hold oversized dildos, hovering below-though not touching the vagina. She is Venus as portrayed by the 5th century Greek painter Epiktetos. Soon after, we encounter Sheela-na-gig, a mythic, Celtic goddess, carved into stone. She is all eyes, all mouth, all vagina-all entry.
Beneath the unified field created by the linear, dancing parade, a multiplicity of representations of female bodies vie for attention in a flow of calculated visual disjunction. Spero’s ambiguous representations of females touch on the archetypal, that which lies beyond the commonplace, the everyday. Her females are spindly, linear figures whose semi-invisible tracery suggests as much a web of entrapment as an opening up of the hidden, creative forces of life. They are like fates, spinning out the threads of human destiny.
For over twenty years now, Nancy Spero’s art has given us a rare insight into the terrorism that pervades contemporary culture both within the space of war and between the sexes. It is a body of work, too, which has unflinchingly addressed itself to the expression of a specifically female subjectivity. Perhaps it is because of being a woman that she feels, most acutely, the need to express the inexpressible, to leave some invisible mark of the hidden underside of historical reality.
The significance of feminist thinking in Spero’s work is undeniable and Spero’s importance in the movement throughout the ’70s and ’80s is undoubted. But her work transcends the sphere of political debate and side-taking. To see it only in these terms limits its significance and, more crucially, threatens the essential ambiguity of the imagery she creates. Her art touches on something more universal precisely because of this ambiguity. Spero’s most declamatory representation of the male, characteristically represented by the bodiless head with protruding tongue that spews out the fires of war and universal destruction in Bomb, 1966 is also the spark of creation, or of procreation in Rebirth of Venus,1985.
Spero’s art attempts to find points of connection between the archetypal and the commonplace worlds of 20th century living; to bridge the worlds of ancestral memory and the immediacy of experience in our contemporary image-culture. Her use of archaic, pictographic elements is as a means of punctuation within the contemporary world of image-flow. The art operates as a reminder of the mythic dimension in the depersonalized universe of the present day.
The clash of mythic figures with contemporary silhouettes, the images of classical grace juxtaposed with obscenely, grotesque unfamiliar female forms are like an effort to create new images for the future; to jolt the memory in a culture of total information retrieval where nothing is lost and yet where, individually, memory is annulled and the memorable enters the increasing provisionality of media turnover. In a culture where individual and social memory are turned over to the indifference of technology, it is identity which is at stake.
What is at stake too, for Spero-as with all artists-is the permanence of experience in the form of visual memory; something that eludes a culture based upon speed of information and mediated sensations. We become acutely aware of the permanence of the image in a culture where the image has become the embodiment of transience.
Spero is not a new ‘history’ painter, nor is she at pains to offend for its own sake. What she does, though, is to willfully create a sense of uncertainty, unease. The delicacy and beauty her painted surfaces often belie the content the work. But it always denies definition and a reduction to the straightforwardly simple moral or political message. At the very moment that the imagery seems most explicit in conforming to the stereotypes of propaganda or everyday complacency, Spero introduces an uneasy distance. Indeed, she is concerned to probe the unspoken underside of the processes of pictorial familiarity that have effectively annihilated historical space through image overload; the collective consciousness which has blurred potential for excavating our sexual identity by the closure of moral rectitude or the liberalism produced by willful, pornographic manipulation.
Nancy Spero’s art, like William Blakes’ the 19th century, is an art of synthesis in a world of fracture and disorientation. It unifies the divisions in its defiant imbalance. “To make in ourselves a new consciousness, an erotic sense of reality, is to become conscious of symbolism. Symbolism is the mind making connection (correspondences) rather than distinctions (separations).” (Love’s Body by Norman 0. Braun) Spero has a way of intervening in the anonymity that contemporary culture has imposed on us all. She has found a personal point of contact through an exploration of our divided worlds. Her art seems like a bridge between the separated worlds of the sacred and the profane, the personal and the social, the archetypal and the stereotypical and the ancient and contemporary. But in the end, the experience of the work is not one of empathy, either on the part of the artist or on the part the viewer. What we experience is the exposure of the gulf in our lives between these separated realms of experience.
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