Goddess-Ripping Fiction: Investigating Nancy Spero's Essentialist Masquerade

Spero's "Picasso and Frederick's of Hollywood," 1990, handprinted collage on paper
(© The Estate of Nancy Spero, courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York)

An all-female cast of Neolithic fertility idols, Egyptian slave girls, maenads, Celtic she-devils, lingerie models, and 20th century war victims populates the collaged paper scrolls and friezes in “From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s and 1990s” at Galerie Lelong. Transferred onto zinc plates, the characters in Spero’s so-called “stock company” of 450 female archetypes serve as iterable and interchangeable hieroglyphs in her recursive body of work. At the time the works were made, this aggregative strategy solved a practical problem — Spero’s dexterity gradually deteriorated after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 1961 — but it also portended the remixing tendencies of postmodernism and Internet culture. If she had lived, Spero would have been an aficionada of the Pinterest board.

The first posthumous solo show of Spero’s work in New York, “From Victimage to Liberation” presents two very different artistic personalities. Unflinchingly political collages from the 1980s juxtapose images of female victims of oppressive regimes in Argentina, Nicaragua, and South Africa with Amnesty International reports of human rights abuses. These works have the moral seriousness of Käthe Kollwitz, while the latter-day Spero indulges in naughty Beardsleyesque irreverence. In the tripartite vertical composition, “Runner” (1997), a phalanx of Amazons runs across the bottommost perimeter. Two Minoan maidens surf through a golden nebula. A winged Sirin endowed with an exaggerated phallus presides over the scene on a platform in the sky. In the stratified matrix of “The Underworld” (1995), a meander of snakes adorns the bottom register, while an image lifted from a medieval drolerie depicts a kneeling woman performing analingus on the Devil. Made in the same year, “Life Dance,” with its Greek vase figures pleasuring themselves with prehistoric dildos, revels in the liberatory possibilities of female autoeroticism.

Some critics have reproached Spero for creating a universalizing myth of female experience. Writing in “Art In America” in 1973, the film critic Jane Weinstock accused Spero of fabricating an “otherworldliness that reinscribes the traditional female/male opposition.” Viewers weaned on constructionist theories of performative gender are in danger of choking on the heavy portion of goddess imagery in Spero’s work. Even the show’s title sounds quaintly earnest and teleological. But rather than banishing the work into the provinces of well-intentioned essentialism, it’s more interesting to think about the work as it sits at the crux of these debates. The multicultural frittata of imagery that populates Spero’s works reflects the diversity of femininity in representation, while clinging to a transhistorical sorority of women across space and time. While the large and joyful multi-panel composition, “The Goddess Nut II” may be guilty of reiterating earth mother clichés with its frolicking nymphets and celebratory goddess imagery, “Picasso and Fredericks of Hollywood,” critiques, in no uncertain terms, the objectification of women under patriarchy: Spero transforms Picasso’s “Woman with Bouquet” into a protuberant, testicular peeping tom pursuing lingerie-clad mud flap girls, a splayed, Dubuffet-like succubus, a mandrake-shaped, fork-footed mother figure with distended breasts and roots sprouting from her udders across the picture plane.

Spero's work can be understood in terms of what postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak has termed “strategic essentialism.” This position, while acknowledging that gender is culturally constructed, adopts essentialist language as a rhetorical device and political tool. The diversity of Spero’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cultural appropriation actually prefigures the anti-essentialist claim that gender isn’t self-evident, but a slippery and contingent performance. All the while, her self-made myth of transcultural sisterhood opposes contemporary patriarchy and makes a case for solidarity among women. At a moment when anti-essentialism can so easily slide into post-feminism and even anti-feminism, Spero’s quasi-mythic pantheon of appropriated female archetypes might be more relevant and challenging than ever.

"Nancy Spero: From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s and 1990s” is on view at Galerie Lelong, 528 West 26th Street, through Feburary 16, 2013.

To see paintings from the exhibition, click the slideshow here.