New York

Nancy Spero

Josh Baer Gallery

Nancy Spero represents the historical nightmare that constitutes women’s relationship to culture. Her representations of victims of medieval torture, Nazi sadism, and sexual abuse are hand-printed and collaged onto empty white backgrounds next to pornographic images, prehistoric female running figures, and defiantly vulgar women; it’s the story of power struggles played out on the bodies of women.

Spero adopts the role of the loud-mouthed raconteur, telling this tale of horror that others would like to ignore. Here, ten pieces combined to form an installation of sorts. Various colored and textured versions of a naked woman in an explicit and sexually aggressive pose are collaged onto a 36-foot length of unrolled paper hung eight feet from the floor. Standing in a half-squat with pelvis thrust forward, knees bent outward, and arms cocked upward, the figure was obviously lifted from a pornographic magazine and combined with versions of a well-heeled Marlene Dietrich-era woman—eyes focused directly on the viewer, striding forward, and confidently smoking a cigarette. The resulting image, entitled Cabaret, 1991, points up the disjunction between the two women—the differences in their classes, sexual roles, and in their relationships with the viewer—challenging the notion of an intrinsic feminine nature and focusing instead on how each was defined and determined by others.

Opposite these jarring images, printed directly onto the wall in unevenly stamped letters, was the Bertolt Brecht story “Ballad of Marie Sanders, the Jew’s Whore,” 1934–36. It is the tale of a gentile woman who, as punishment for her sexual relations with a Jew, was publicly humiliated and tortured. Also printed directly onto the wall were different colored versions of a photograph found on a Gestapo member depicting a woman stripped bare, gagged, and bound with ropes, in preparation for hanging. It was a photograph that the officer had kept on his person, obviously a cherished memento. Here, Spero contextualizes the assault of women as a consequence of patriarchy. Perpendicular to these two opposite installations were the words “Search” and “Destroy” stamped in large letters on framed paper. Superimposed over these words was an image of a missile soaring through the air. The only military image in the exhibition, its centrality highlighted the implied connection between sexual dominance and militarism.

The other pieces consisted of hand-printed collaged cutouts on paper, hung vertically in a scroll-like format. These images ranged from torture victims to temptresses, opening a Pandora’s box of emotionally charged issues. By using these sexually explicit images, many taken from pornographic sources, Spero daringly confronts questions of female eroticism without resorting to sanitized political rectitude. She dares to be bad. The political message that is the raison d’être for Spero’s art is well served by the force of her visuals. Although in the ’50s Spero worked in oil on canvas, in the last two decades she has used specially made stamps to imprint images on paper, which she then cuts out and elaborately collages. Each figure floats, free of constraining historical context, and functions as an eternal mnemonic. The stamps themselves are images of women that are pulled together from every time period: prehistoric, medieval, and modern. The result is a melange of images of female victimhood, extending back into prerecorded history. The costumes change; the politics don’t.

Dena Shottenkirk