an artists' view

an artists' view

Thursday, 21 April 2011

London, Nancy Spero at the Serpentine Gallery


Yesterday I went to London for the day to visit the Serpentine Gallery where an exhibition of Nancy Spero's work is currently being shown. Trust me to pick the hottest day of the year so far! As I decided to walk from King's Cross down to Hyde Park (and then walk back again afterwards) I was walking in hot sun, amongst busy streets, with traffic and bodies adding to the temperatures. Ah well; once in Hyde Park, the greenery created a cooller space.
The exhibition has come from the Centre Pompidou in France. As this is a much bigger gallery than the Serpentine, I expect that a selection has had to be made, from that larger show.

In the entrance was a 3D work, 'Maypole', which is a central pole from which hang flat aluminium heads, faces, all in expressions of pain and agony. This was quite different from the rest of the work, which was all on paper. Spero is quoted as saying 'I was working exclusively on paper; part of my resistance as an artist in the 'War Series' was a decision not to work any more on canvas. I shifted completely to work on paper.' The 'War Series' dates back to the 1960's.

I remember as an art student in the 1980's being involved in discussions about the uses of materials, and how our personal choices of materials expressed particular ideologies. I explored art history wearing feminist spectacles, aware that what I was taught was the history of 'dead, white men' of famous artists. It seems that questions of 'what materials?' nowadays, is more concerned with recycled, and environmentally harmless materials. I think these issues would not be addressed without feminist artists from the 1980's asking related questions. Personally, I now use canvas and oils; as well as other materials.

Spero's paper work is flawed, imperfect. Lines are blurry; prints are double-imaged. It has a 'home-made' quality, though this is definately not amateur! There is a fierce intelligence here; though Spero is creating her own iconography, and this is not always obvious, or easy to discern. Even as an artist, who is a feminist, and who has familiarity with some of the goddess-images she uses, I found myself adrift at times.

'Azure' (2002) works particularly well, I thought. It is beautiful; rich in colour and imagery; multi-layered (literally as well as in meaning); using images from the ancient, and the modern world.

There are figures that viewers will be familiar with; Egyptian goddesses, Babylonian goddesses; Greek images (from vases?); the styles and figures are 'readable'. We know where we are. There are images from modern pornography, synchronised and in opposition to the ancient images on show. Here again are images we have become familiar with. Spero re-produces; re-presents; re-images for us. I need to go back and re-read my Mary Daly!

Spero is known for the movement in her work; there are running women, naked and free. Blurred and repeated images emphasise this movement, creating an almost film-strip quality.

'Azure' is a massive piece. In the catalogue it says it is 39 panels, of various dimensions. All these are displayed in the central space of the Serpentine Gallery. I needed to sit with them, and look, and think about them. There were no seats though, so I ended up sitting on the gallery floor. Not ideal when the amount of work meant that they were placed 4 of 5 panels deep, on the wall. Works on paper bring particular problems for curators; they need low light levels to be viewed in so they are protected. With many of the panels high up on the walls, and low light levels to view them with, I found it a bit of a struggle to see the higher placed panels. Which was a shame, as sitting on the floor, trying to look at the 'whole' thing, I was struck by the colours and textures, and could see more clearly where Spero had placed her repeat prints.

I didn't like 'Codex Artaud'. Not being a French speaker or reader, I couldn't make any sense of the words, and the visual patterns were created using text. With a lot of white space. It seemed very much of its time (the 1970's). As this was an exhibition celebrating Spero's work and life, then it made sense to include it. But for me it lacked the richness and depth of her later work, such as 'Azure'.

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