New York

Nancy Spero

Nancy Spero has produced another monumental “scroll” work, an epic frieze of the magnitude of her earlier pioneering installations, such as Notes in Time on Women, 1979, and The First Language, 1981. Like those, Azur, 1997–2002, is a three-tier horizontal “surround” of printed and painted paper collage, a bursting-at-the-seams extravaganza of figures familiar and strange, mythic and real, whose shared attribute is being female. In Azur (composed of thirty-nine panels, each made up of several large sheets of paper, all 277 feet of it pushpinned to the wall), Spero's ladies leap into action, rhythmically bounding from one panel to the next, over heavenly sky domes, into pools of saturated color, out of whirling spirals, past checkerboard fields of frenzied pattern. Acrobats, runners, dancers, divers, deliverers, protectors, sufferers, survivors, avengers, warriors: The women walk many paths in life and in turn lead us, dialogically, in many directions at once.

The centerpiece of Spero's first exhibition in New York since 1995, this scroll is more exuberant, even euphoric, than any that has come before, in terms of the sheer optimism of so many fantastic femmes and the narrative moments they activate as well as in the visual pleasure of prismatic color effects and the cinematic momentum of surfaces effervescent with inventive handiwork. We too become dancers and divers as we move up and down and back and forth along the walls and, imaginatively, in and out of Azur's stretched pictorial environments. Walking along, attempting to navigate its triple register and unbroken lengths simultaneously, we enter the fray at various points—there's Sheela-na-Gig! oh my, and those willful, tongue-wagging Gorgons! Keeping tally of random discoveries as well as the incidental associations that invariably accrue, we may linger in the open spaces that punctuate the piece or gravitate to the dynamic action sequences—a force field of flying axes, an advancing army of Amazons. As we choreograph our own engagement with the work, consciously and not, we also actively, if arbitrarily, construct its narrative dimensions.

Though the scroll never reads the same way twice, the messages it embodies are consistent with themes that run throughout the history of Spero's art. We note iconographic links to previous projects, recalling the marginalization and rage that fueled her bitingly political and personal feminist art—but has Spero retired from making overtly political work? As happy as it is, Azur's carnival of pleasures is leavened with reality. Unlike many of her epic pieces, there is no text, save for two panels. In one the word EXPLICIT, stenciled above an image of a Playboy-style model, connects to the phrase EXPLICIT EXPLANATION, which initially appeared in Torture of Women, 1976, the first work in which Spero brandished transcultural signs and symbols of and for the feminine. In the other panel the figure of Masha Bruskina, a real-life victim of the Gestapo whose image we've encountered in Spero's earlier work is shown wearing a big sign written in German and Russian that declares the crime for which she must die. WIR SIND PARTISANEN, the sign begins.

We are partisan, indeed, in countless ways, to the unspeakable violence of the world. And yet, perhaps the experiences afforded us in Spero's work—the slippage of secure subject positions, the ever-shifting points of view, the buoyancy we must maintain in our distracted engagement—might actually promote the idea of seeing differently as a means by which we might take another look at who we are.

Jan Avgikos