What is your stereotype of a woman? And was it influenced by female archetypes?
You might think of Artemis or Eurydice. Of the sheela-na-gig or a gartered, toned model. Or of wartime martyrs such as Masha Bruskina or victims unnamed even in their dossiers.
If your answer is all of the above, know that this syncretic cultural montage is grounded largely in the work of Nancy Spero, an artist and activist far ahead of her time, especially in the 1960s and '70s. Spero not only participated in the Peace Tower protest, the Art Workers Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution, but also approached composition, scene and character that radically broke with aesthetic and semantic expectations.
Spero used archetypal renderings that already were extant in the cultural space — the self-portrait of a schizophrenic woman, Egyptian reliefs, sultry advertisements, the snapshot of a naked victim pocketed, like a memento, by a Nazi. In conjunction, she used collage to present images of woman in her sundry times and cultural situations, the anthropology of being female.
Twenty-four of Spero's works provide the flagship fall exhibition at Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery. The collection, acquired from New York's Galerie Lelong, is an eloquent arrangement of Spero's early and late works, separated as such into two rooms.
The first room documents how women become marginalized or commodified in wartime, while the second room is more optimistic. It presents depictions — sometimes self-depictions — of women who, having reclaimed their bodies and spirits, are able to struggle with their gender roles from a position of independence. And because Anderson Gallery visitors will walk through this change, the exhibit is appropriately called "Toward Liberation."
In her mid-'60s renascence, Spero, who was trained as a cubist painter, began to shun the modern tools, accouterments and expectations of painters. No neatly framed canvasses here. She scrolled plain paper across walls, forcing the viewer to move not just near (with small works) or far (with the enormous works popular back then), but along with the action in the scroll. In this way, the observer participates in the trudge through a horizonless landscape of crimes against women. Such presentation is much less forgettable than a single historically and subjectively coherent moment.
Instead of relying on imagination, Spero is known for making stamps from existing documentation of women — the fertility statues, the prison records, the ancient murals — and handprinting the character over and over again.
Sometimes a piece of art will contain dozens of iterations of one identical character, refracting the statistical magnitude of similar struggles. For example, the repetition of one woman (her mouth ajar, her posture erect, and in midstride across a war-torn Vietnamese field) comes to represent the excruciating resilience of her entire milieu in "Vietnamese Women." In other works, Spero juxtaposes many different characters that represent distinct incarnations of femininity, as if convening these dissonant women is a measure of emancipation.
Spero's re-nascence was a public rather than artistic one. Her courage in producing work that described so starkly the socio-political restriction of women, the atrocities of war imposed against women, and the sexual terms of a woman's role was broadly appreciated by the '80s and '90s. Spero had been a Cassandra of sorts, but she lived to see a total vindication and international praise.
As her acceptance grew and American culture began to see gender equality as a self-evident rather than contentious issue, Spero's work took on an empowered tone. The second room at the Anderson includes a vivacious palette and victorious characters, such as "the Olympian."
Also an advocate for women in the arts, Spero co-founded the Artists in Residence Gallery in 1972. It's dedicated solely to work by women and operates with a cooperative structure — that is, its members are its owners and have a collective say in gallery matters. Though Spero died in 2009, both her art and her frank, tough vivacity might yet galvanize the next generation of women. S
The fall exhibitions at the Anderson Gallery run through Dec. 9. Information on the gallery is available at 828-1522 and online at arts.vcu.edu/andersongallery.