How two female creatives respond to the work of early feminist Nancy Spero
On March 31, 2019, MoMA PS1 opened a new exhibition of work by visual artist and activist Nancy Spero. Two ThoughtMatter designers, Wednesday Krus and Samantha Barbagiovanni, attended. Below are their reflections on how Spero’s voluminous body of work can inform their own work as women in the modern design industry.
A Perspective from Wednesday Krus
The gallery space is quiet, but I hear Nancy Spero’s voice in her art, clear and resonant. Her work is physically flat — paint on paper, canvas and metal — but her subjects leap from the wall as if in confrontation.
Paper Mirror, a collection of Spero’s art curated by Julie Ault, is one woman’s full-throated call for protest, but it has a presence and power seemingly beyond what one person is capable of. Seeing Spero’s work, the viewer is confronted by an army of female supporters. Active, dynamic women occupy every available inch of gallery space. They appear high near the ceiling and low to the floor. They’re overlapping, dancing on top of and in between each other, but each commands her own space. The intent is clear: this is a space for women and women’s narratives.
Art has historically had a male bias. Perhaps this is still true. Powerful art — be it visual art, literature or music — has been reserved for men. Women who have challenged this paradigm have been punished and villainized. This reality is reflected in a line Spero has unabashedly screen printed on yellowing paper: “Throughout male literary history, Gorgons, Sirens, Mothers of Death and Goddesses of Night represent women who reject passivity and silence.”
Paper Mirror rejects this paradigm. It’s a proud anti-establishment proclamation. Here, a female artist and female curator have created a space to celebrate women who have dared to stand up for themselves and reject an oppressive sociocultural framework. It’s a space to acknowledge women as strong, ambitious figures in historical narratives. In Spero’s own words, Paper Mirror depicts “woman as protagonist.”
The women of Spero’s work are not small, apologetic or polite. They’re liberated, formidable, inescapable. Body parts typically hidden from view are exposed: women stick out their tongues, bare their chests and expose their vaginas. These subjects are unrestrained by clothing and ideology both.
The anti-establishment aspect of Spero’s work is reinforced by her technique. The paper and canvas are not neatly squared or pressed, but rather creased, rumpled and torn. Metal, too, is roughly carved to reveal sharp edges. Brushstrokes are courageously, even violently cast. Ink and paint are smeared. This harsh physicality openly mocks the term “a feminine touch.” Nothing is delicate — not the subject matter, technique or spirit.
A careful observer can trace Spero’s thought through her art. Some ideas are erased or scrubbed out; others are painted over in bolder reds or darker blacks. Spero invites the viewer to contemplate her inner monologue and evolution of thought.
Similarly, the viewer can infer Spero’s movement through physical space. Her brushstrokes signify the physical process of mark-making. Long, powerful strokes suggest Spero used her whole arm, even her whole body, to make these marks. Spero’s art isn’t just a small window into her mind; it’s a broad gateway into her physical being and intellectual and emotional spirit.
In reflecting upon Spero’s art, I ask myself several questions: Can my voice be heard in my design work? Am I present in my work? Am I making enough of statement? Am I personally and ideologically aligned with my work? Spero reminds me that before I was a designer, I was an artist, but I’ve neglected the practice of visceral mark-making for strategically planned and precisely formulated design.
Spero inspires me to blend my two practices and create a design methodology that includes literal and metaphorical physicality. I want to make bold work that is objectively ”non-feminine” and absolutely opinionated.
The male bias Spero rejected is still ubiquitous. Strong female opinions are critically necessary in the modern design industry. I want to see more anger and I want to make people angry. I want to see expressive typography. I want to see an adverse reaction to millennial pink. I want to see explosive opinions and work made by hand. I want to see an industry that clears the way for women — not because women want a gold star for inclusion, but because we have astounding talent and worthwhile perspectives.
Spero saw women as protagonists in history. I want to see women as protagonists in branding.
Since experiencing Paper Mirror, I’ve returned to something Spero once said. “I want my work to be telling and strong, but not in a masculine sense. Strong in that it has a certain message — and it can be a strong message.”
A Perspective from Samantha Barbagiovanni
The experience of Paper Mirror is an eerie one. As I walk alone through MoMA PS1, hearing my footfalls echo through the stairwells and hallways, I feel as though I’m exploring an abandoned school. It’s a warm spring day, but I feel a chill.
Fittingly for the season, the first piece of art I encounter is a maypole, but each ribbon is horrifyingly fitted with a human head. The gender of each unfortunate subject is unclear, but emotional distress and torture is certain. Some appear with gaping mouths, as if in mid-scream; others reveal a grotesquely twisted tongue. Some suffer bleeding wounds, and others have had their eyes violently gouged. The maypole is unsettling, even upsetting, but as I walk beyond I cannot help but acknowledge the intricacy and beauty of the installation. Each ribbon was strung with care, precision and purpose. In a way, this artistry enhances the horror of the piece.
I move into the main gallery, where frames of varying sizes and orientations dance along the walls. Their placement seems unorthodox — some hang unusually high and others rest near the floor. A challenge, maybe, to more traditional gallery setups. From afar there’s an airiness to the room, but as I move inside the art seems to grow in three dimensions. Female spirits and mythological and historical characters begin to occupy a greater and greater volume of the gallery’s space.
Nancy Spero is interested in the horrors and grotesqueries of history. In experiencing her work, I find myself reflecting on the horrors of the present.
Several pieces feature women dancing wildly, as though participating in cult ritual, while demonic-looking figures appear between frames. Some figures seem to be derived from history, mythology, folklore and literature. Others are eerily modern. A range of cultures, too, are represented. This variety suggests women coming together, supporting one another in adverse situations, much as they are today in the face of political attacks on women’s rights. Spero seems to channel centuries of female anger, suggesting that women were historically maligned — as they still are — for speaking out against a patriarchal society. I wonder: which women alive today might Spero have included in her art?
Numerous pieces feature a Celtic goddess, Sheela Na Gig. Historically associated with fertility, the goddess is posed with her hands gripping her own genitalia. The association with modern politics is inevitable. This feels like a declaration in support of a woman’s control of her own body. It’s the antithesis to Trump’s infamous and deplorable boast: “grab ’em by the pussy.” I don’t think he’d dare do so to Sheela.
Spero’s work feels especially relevant in modern times. I find myself thinking of the exhibit name: Paper Mirror. Art reflects the culture and society of the time in which it’s created, but we also see ourselves continually reflected in art of the past. Here, viewing old paint and ink smeared on old paper and canvas, I see our own society, in all its horror, reflected in stark focus.
Experiencing Spero’s art makes me consider my own position as a female artist. How can I embrace feminism in my own way, in my own work? How can I support the advocacy of women’s rights in the design industry? Do I have an obligation to do so? It is, after all, 2019, and great strides have been made in social justice. Women in design are killing it, and will continue to do so. In my experience, female creatives are not less equal than their male counterparts, despite centuries of society privileging art made by men. I would, of course, like to see more female-led agencies and female creative directors, but I think we’re on the path to doing so.
The world today can fill you with white-hot rage, but that anger must be leveraged for a productive purpose. I’d like to focus on celebrating women’s talent, strength, voice and perspective. I’d like to empower my fellow female creatives and be a part of a collaborative, diverse team that supports and challenges one another.
I keep thinking back to the female figures in Spero’s work: women across cultures, generations and geography in unconditional support of one another, dancing, leaping and moving through society’s bullshit with flare and confidence.