Galerie Lelong’s new exhibition of Nancy Spero’s work, “From Victimage to Liberation: Works from the 1980s & 1990s” tells the story of human conflict, wherein women and their bodies are prisms through which violence and transcendence refract. On view through Feb. 16, the exhibition’s 17 works are in turns unsettling and celebratory, tattered but heroic, like a battle-worn flag.
This is the Chelsea gallery’s first showing of Spero’s work since the artist’s death in 2009. Many works will be quite new to the public; nearly a third have never been shown, including Balinese Dancer (1990), Invocation (1995), Runner (1997), The Underworld (1997) and Argentina (1981). According to the gallery, most of the other works have only been shown once before, or never at all in the United States.
As the title implies, the show is characterized, above all, by movement—by tension and release. The term “victimage” denotes transformation. Mary Sabbatino, the show’s curator and Lelong’s vice president, notes in her introduction to the catalogue that Spero coined the term “to describe the victim passing from sufferer to protagonist.”
There is brutality here—particularly in some of the works assembled in the gallery’s smaller room. In Death Figure / Gestapo (1994), a hand-printed, collage-based diptych, we see the silhouette of a hooded woman in a dress on the left, based on an image of a little girl who disappeared in Argentina. The silhouette has been scratched out and coarsely removed, cut out like a paper doll by a pair of blunt scissors. To the right, an image of a woman, naked and bound with a noose around her neck, is thrice repeated—taken from a photograph, the catalog informs us, that was originally found in the pocket of a Nazi. Beside her stands an image of death: an animated female skeleton wielding a blunt instrument, taken from a Mexican Day of the Dead festival.
Likewise, in Argentina (1981), screen-printed images of a woman screaming and another crawling are repeated multiple times atop pieces of a typed Amnesty International report about the torture of pregnant women. The impressionistic print of another woman, stripped mostly naked, obscures a swath of the text: she is sprawled on her back, crooked-limbed, like a chalk outline in a crime scene.
Also from 1981, South Africa uses the exact same images of the screaming and crawling women, printed atop other Amnesty reports about female political prisoners.
Following Spero’s definition of the word “victimage,” her victims become protagonists by multiple means, the most critical of which, perhaps, is self-preservation, without which there is nothing left to liberate. As one moves through the exhibition, we see the women transfigured, breaking away from victimhood into flight and survival. In El Salvador (1986) and Nicaragua (1986), the women are suffering, but mobile. In the former, one woman, repeated in print three or more times, escapes with her baby. A work in the larger room employs the same woman-and-child image, Fleeing Woman and Child, Irradiated (1985); we imagine the ethnically-ambiguous woman in this context as fleeing the nuclear bomb in Japan—or, indeed, Fukushima.
We’ve seen exact same woman-and-child elsewhere, like in Fleeing Vietnamese Women (1987)—a piece that does not appear in this exhibit, but provides a link to the show’s sprawling, seven-foot-long Vietnamese Women (1985), which depicts more than two dozen screen-printed replications of a single image of a walking woman.
This transposition of specific images across disparate times and geographies lets Spero’s work tell an alternative history of the late 20th century and its industrialized violence. In the end, a single image can tell the stories of Nicaragua, Japan and Vietnam, because they are the same story. We don’t see the male soldiers, the guns, bombs or napalm. But we know they are there by way of the women who suffer and survive them.
For the most part, Spero’s work changes as it progresses from the Reagan era into the 1990s, acquiring a greater sense of agency and optimism. The repetitive, roughly-printed Warholian esthetic remains—implicitly violent in some pieces, as all replication can be a kind of violence against the individual and subjectivity. Still, the broader message is one of transcendence. In pieces like The Goddess Nut II (1990), Life Dance (1995) and Invocation (1995), women’s bodies swirl and twist through the ether among winged goddesses and other creatures, drawing heavily from ancient Egyptian imagery, but also ancient Japan and Greece.
In Runner (1997), woman and bird seem to merge in a kind of sexual union while, below, a string of running, naked women swoop down from the sky.
That exuberance unites much of the work in this show, Sabbatino told A.i.A. during a gallery tour, “which is more celebratory, more lyrical, more dance-like” than some of Spero’s other work. It also resonates across audiences from one generation to the next, she said, in part because it appeals to widespread and perpetual struggles. As such, Lelong intends to continue organizing shows for Spero’s work in the future.
“She reached back to the past, yet she was completely involved in the present,” Sabbatino observed. “She would talk about Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and Katrina and the mourning women at Thebes—it would all be mixed together.”