New York

Nancy Spero

Josh Baer Gallery

Here, Nancy Spero showed several works from 1985, including Skygoddess, a large work on paper that extended along three walls of the gallery; four smaller mixed media pieces; and one earlier work, Monsters, 1984. All of these were monoprints on rectangular pieces of paper joined into either horizontal or vertical series. Spero has zinc plates made from her drawings of found images, which are largely taken from the early history of art, but also sometimes from the contemporary mass media. She applies acrylic paint to the plates, and presses them by hand onto her papers. The figures are usually representations of women: statuesque Greek ladies in chitons and saucy Greek girls playing with dildoes, both derived from classical vase paintings; naked running women copied from Saharan cave paintings; a Gaelic goddess displaying her vagina; a Vietnamese woman fleeing her home with her baby.

Spero’s technique is to overprint and juxtapose these images, often heightening the figures’ contours with gouache and collaged silhouettes. Most of the figures in Skygoddess, for example, are arranged processionally, as if they were walking or running from either end of the long paper scroll toward a central meeting place. Extending around the room above eye level, Skygoddess recalled early Greek friezes, particularly certain sections of the Ionic frieze from the Parthenon, in which priestesses and their female attendants solemnly move toward the central station, where the goddess Athena waits to be clothed in a new gown. The jumbling and superimposition of images from far distant ages echoes the cumulative imagery of the paleolithic caves at Lascaux and Altamira, where images made thousands of years apart may lie on top of or next to one another. This procedure of Spero’s suggests intriguing similarities between the premodern and postmodern ages, both of which lack Modernism’s obsession with linear, chronological development. Her accumulation of found images also constitutes a comparative critique of representational styles and canons, as styles convincing in their respective original contexts are seen, next to one another, to be dramatically different. The media-related implication is that objects and people are made what they are—or made what they seem to us to be—by the representational style in which we are accustomed to experiencing images of them.

Spero’s work has been valued in the past for its exquisite balancing of linguistic and visual elements and empty space, usually in a straightforward black-and-white tonality. These newer mixed media works introduce lush color, and eliminate the linguistic elements that one has come to expect in Spero’s work. The color in a sense satisfies our established appetite for the now absent linguistic aspect. Superficially, this may seem a shift in Spero’s concerns, since a visually sensual element, color, has replaced what is usually considered a nonsensual conceptual element, language. Yet in fact this new situation seems to demonstrate that language, in today’s art, is an element like color, another resource on the artist’s expanded palette. Spero’s vocabulary of images is now so clarified that it no longer seems to need the overt linguistic elements. (This is not to suggest, however, that it is necessarily a positive value for an artist to discard words, and they may well appear in Spero’s work again in the future.)

The works in this show, especially the small pieces Running Figures, Totem, and Snake Fertility Goddess, again exhibited Spero’s remarkable compositional sense, her deeply harmonious and vital disposition of figures within the large empty space of the paper. In terms of content, at the center of the work seems to be the project of inserting women into Western history, in which they traditionally have been obscured or repressed. Pericles, in the famous Funeral Oration, a document seminal to this tradition, remarked that the less one heard about a certain woman the more virtuous one should presume her to be. Men and women lived in separate worlds, and it was the men’s world that comprised history; indeed, history has been presented to us as a series of male archetypes, from Alexander to Jesus to Hitler. Spero shows us history as a series of female rather than male images, and without (like, say, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, l979) abrogating competition with men by reverting to distaff media. Spero is a major artist, and this exhibition was an important addition to her oeuvre.

Thomas McEvilley