— vincent hiscock
I had been looking forward, in some vague way, to my first First Friday in Richmond’s gallery row since I arrived in Richmond mid-August. But when I somehow stumbled across news that the Anderson Gallery was opening a Nancy Spero show, I knew my evening would be a bit more serious, better, fuller (involving less galavanting about Broad sipping wine, chatting, less interested in the art itself). I did not know that the show would represent Spero’s relatively little known series concerning women tortured around the world for political reasons; tortured, that it, to keep a social order. Tortured, that is, as a matter of course, such that a horrendous process comes to constitute a normal function of political power. Political oppression “in public life” becomes a private torture. Spero is trying, trying to move figures like those she had been working with in her own life of service into stories, relaying them forward into other publics. She pulls questions upon the page. It is not really about an “-ism” or being an “-ist.” Of course the question is: how to live? Spero was working with different figures, pulling the Amnesty torture report onto pasted papers (a scroll) of collaged Egyptian forms, newspaper photos–a woman’s experience over the centuries. The matter of the image comes in parts that aren’t put back together. Characters cast in the past look across time.
I am in another time.
What do viewers do? Spero wants us to take responsibility for our readings, our viewing. What would it mean to be viewers . . . of conscience? Spero wants us to call the traditional definition of “what viewers do” into question, to set up a new role.
Trying this in a gallery, at the opening for a show, is less a triumphal endeavor than that “call” might make it sound. There is the galavanting, clacking of wine glasses, posturing of designer handbags, new sneakers, shoddy curation. Maybe you realize the delicate flurry of marks, trace of the printer’s hand, is the image of a Vietnamese woman and child irradiated. Maybe you realize you are producing affect (too much like more than a few of those old white northerners thinking of their poor Uncle Toms). Then perhaps you see that you are living impersonally. Looking at the documents, the imagination, the images, living experience can be so detached. It is like a cessation. Theater comes up with this ‘’impersonality’’ stuff a lot (Beckett). And it comes into the gallery. There is a question of social roles, of actual social life versus performed social life. Social life has for a long time been understood through the question of the stage (Shakespeare to Foreman). Spero paints a theater of cruelty, and suddenly the theater of the gallery seems absurd, the speech of passing chitchat can’t be resolved with the images, or the words of the collaged reports with the screaming figures. The dots become like a fractured consciousness, entering dots that leave traces for others to bounce off.
Spero’s are not shy images. Fear is poetry painted into an image field. She is witnessing the world, but in trying to compose a scene of our world she is also calling into question both the descriptive outer world and the ways in which we posture authenticity within our internal worlds. Words fly free of characters, bodies spasm, dark forms are left on the page. Spero: “I have without a doubt learned to get close to death–imagination stupefied.” Talk of death in the 70’s (death of the author, death of the social, death of the self, wars, assassinations, rock songs) is symptomatic of something that stays with us. There is a crisis of the role. You cannot just take on a role. Roles preexist you. Forms have symbolic meanings. Roles come with a theatrics of their own. And you can’t just reverse them. It’s a whole theater that we’ve inherited and can slowly work with, in the time-field of the viewer. Spero paints a monstrous Picasso abstraction of a splay-legged Aboriginal pictogram, a lingerie model, a Mexican figurine of a woman giving birth, a figurative grotesque drawn by an insane woman.
Using her tools, long rolls of paper like Egyptian friezes, collected images rearranging, shifting in tone, density, association, Spero takes an irrational role to what the world has done for us. She (with Artaud) gives something, a role that might make sense even while the question of the subject remains, opening up through new kinds of collective experience. The figures dissolve into a limbo of quasi-negativity. I am at a remove: to aspire and not to inhabit. It’s hard to talk about. I think our culture is confused about truth. The public denies the most primary dread. Modernity tries to do away with death, stifling the voice of the world’s mystery, its own violence, and with it anything like our own destiny. We long for the passion of engagement or even some sort of sublime aloofness. We are attracted to ideals or wish that we could avoid having any. At the end we live in the uneasy tension of our own contradictions. Pictures imitate life to find a way out.
But a picture is no substitute for anything.
Pictures: Fleeing Woman and Child, Irradiated (1985) Argentina (1981) Death Figure/Gestapo (1994) Picasso and Frederick’s of Hollywood (1990) To The Revolution [bottom half] (2001)
“Nancy Spero: Towards Liberation” is open until Dec. 8. The Anderson Gallery is open 10-5 T-F and from 12-5 on the weekend. Admission is free. For more information please visit the web address below: