New York

Nora Speyer

Freud wrote in 1905, “Seeing is ultimately derived from touching,” which is sexually “indispensable,” “a source of pleasure.” The most “touching” textures in paint are subliminally sexual, that is, poignantly suggestive of tactile sensations abstracted from an object. Freud’s insight comes to mind when faced with Nora Speyer’s canvases and their richly evocative, peculiarly impacted primordial texture, notto mention her vision of basic sexual objects—bodies (mostly naked and female) orgiastically entangled at times but more often falling in abysmal space, like souls in traditional images of hell.

As is well known, Freud associates dreams of falling with anxiety and (especially in the case of women) surrender to temptation. Speyer’s often open-mouthed “Dream Sequence” figures seem to reflect both. In Dream Sequence II, 1996, the anxiety aroused by surrender seems explicit: A woman (a troubled Danäe, perhaps) seems to be simultaneously falling and reclining in a green meadow dotted with flowers that resemble luminous coins.

Eros is everywhere evident in Speyer’s imagery, as is Thanatos. In Dream Sequence I, 1996, a half-naked woman averts her eyes from a grimacing skull, a format familiar from Redon and Munch. Speyer is explicit about her allegiance to Symbolism as well as Expressionism. These movements are of course now part of the modern tradition, but Speyer adds something even more traditional: a sense of the archetypal or universal. According to both Jung and the contemporary sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, human nature is characterized by archetypes; Speyer’s recurring figures and erotically evocative palette (lurid violet, gentle green) seem to express surrender to erotic temptation as one of these.

Again and again we see the archaic figures in situations of danger, sometimes happily surrendering to their fate, as in Dream Sequence VIII, 1999, where painful falling seems to have become pleasurable floating. The 1998 collage drawing from which the painting derives—for all the care with which she renders the bodies, Speyer’s black-and-white drawings are a wonderfully loose weave of lines and tones—shows the female figure with a strange smile on her face. But here she seems to be tumbling or flipping over herself, suggesting that, after all else, anxiety remains the dominant emotion in Speyer’s erotic dreams.

Donald Kuspit