Nancy Spero once wrote: "I’ve always sought to express a tension in form and meaning in order to achieve a veracity. I have come to the conclusion that the art world has to join us, women artists, not we join it. When women are in leadership roles and gain rewards and recognition, then perhaps 'we' (women and men) can all work together in art world actions."
As the quote above suggests, Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was a radical American artist and outspoken feminist. In the mid 60’s she went her own way, deciding not to work with oil on canvas, rejecting it as a male medium. Instead she turned to working with materials such as gouache; and using techniques like printmaking on paper and collage. Spero also abandoned the current trends in art, such as Pop Art and the Formalist Abstraction movements in favour of her own ideas.
I recently saw parts of Nancy Speros provocative body of work at the Serpentine Gallery. It really struck me how timeless the exhibition felt even though much of its content was from her early career in the 60s and 70s, and had political and feminist agendas that very much reflected their time. It is however very much thanks to Speros’ use of different media and her genre crossing that the artworks manage to comment on the politics then as well as seeming relevant to todays political climate. At the same time they feel in-sync with today’s aesthetics and designs.
In the seventies Spero began to use only the female figure in her paintings. She explained that, "I decided to view women and men by representing women, not just to reverse conventional history, but to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women”. Spero’s artworks from this period also carry a sense of timelessness, mainly because of their wide range of ethnological sources. Her images bring us a whole array of ancient histories and mythologies through inspiration drawn from Greek, Egypt, Indian and Pagan myths.
I was really struck by the centre piece of the Serpentine exhibition, a recent work of hers: Maypole Takes its Prisoners II (2008). A very powerful object featuring distorted female faces with mouths wide open as if silently screaming out their pain and anger. Since this artwork filled the whole first room of the exhibition it forced visitors to engage with it both when entering and leaving the show. Even though it could get overly crowed at times; as it did on the Sunday of my visit when a lady managed to physically “engage” a little too much with one of the maypole faces... I don’t feel Spero herself would have minded though, her works were very much made to provoke the viewer.
For those of you not familiar with Spero's work, most of her pieces carry strong statements against topics such as anti-male dominance in society and war. She presents powerful arguments for a non-hierarchical society. These statements, more often than not, hit you in the face; even if in a metaphorical, rather than the physical sense. Detail of Azur (2002)