Nancy Spero worked on the frontline defending the rights of female artists to express themselves creatively amongst the patriarchy of her contemporaries both in art and American society from the 1950s onwards. She also campaigned tirelessly in life and art against the atrocities of war. So it’s very much in this context of her conscience taking the lead that her retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery operates.
It’s an exhibition where reading the notes and bearing in mind the conditions in which she worked helps illuminate the pictures on the walls, otherwise some of them may leave you cold.
The show opens with a room-consuming sculpture, Maypole: Take No Prisoners II, which as the title suggests takes the form of a giant, multi-stranded maypole but with cut outs of grimacing and screaming severed heads suspended from its ribbons. Like much of her work, it’s jolly and macabre.
Other works are mostly on paper, on which rapidly executed, instinctual imagery plays itself out in gouache, ink and collage. Recalling art from antiquity and cave art, its earthy execution is highly expressive and there’s a roughness to it that might leave fans of meticulous, painstaking art aghast. There are also a few pieces, a drawing of a male form with a swastika at the crotch being one of them, that from our modern historical viewpoint seem crass.
The stand out room is decked on all four walls vivid collage that incorporates drawing and hand printing in striking colour, combining imagery of ancient Egyptian gods, monsters, gymnasts, and modern women. These images dance across the panes, which offer the viewer a multitude of painterly and printing techniques that are as intriguing to view up close as from afar. It’s more decorative than some of the other works on show and less morally radical, but it seems that one aspect always dominates the other in her work.
-- Laura Bushell
All images courtesy the Serpentine Gallery
Images: Nancy Spero, Maypole: Take No Prisoners II 2008, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London, © 2011 Jerry Hardman-Jones; Azur , detail 2002 , Collage with paint and hand printing on paper, 39 panels, 64.5 x 8567.4 cm overall, Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne / Centre de Création Industrielle, Paris, Loan of Harriet and Ulrich Meyer through the Centre Pompidou Foundation, 2007