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Amidst her images, her assistants and the pieces in the permanent collection at the Sackler Museum, Nancy Spero is completely at home. She carries the quiet authority of forty years of experience in the arts, but her voice is continually questioning.
The New York based artist is currently at work in an installation entitled "Raise/Time" on the fourth floor of the Sackler Museum, in a gallery filled with antiquities.
For this installation, Spero has chosen five images from the Sackler's ancient and Asian collections to "mingle" with images from her own collection. The images include dancing apsaras from Cambodia and China, an aphrodite holding a dove from 450 B.C. and a statuette of a hip-popotamus goddess from the 9th century B.C.
Spero says that she is reacting to both the collection and the architecture. Since the gallery is mostly monochromatic, her figures are very colorful, brilliant tourquoise, green, bright pink. Spero comments, "It's paying homage to the pieces here. I love it."
"It's both austere and not austere," she says of the gallery's collection. "It's playful, so I get playful, but it's also very serious stuff, so I'm playing around."
Spero gleans her own images from a vast array of time periods and cultures, ranging from Egyptian figures to prehistoric African wall-drawings to images of women from the 1920s. A photograph or an outline of an image is then transferred to a rubber stencil, which can be used to make repeated color prints.
"A lot of this is about female sexuality--we as women in control, which is totally utopian, of course," Spero says without bit terness, in a wry, almost bemused tone. "A lot of the images are about female un-self-consciousness," she adds, pointing to an outline of a naked young woman who is "Angry and threatening the viewer. " Only through art, Spero asserts, does she herself feel un-self-conscious.
Spero's voice is gentle and firm as she directs her two assistants. A typical exchangeinvolves a series of questions.
"So you think this is a good place? Not too farto the left? A little lower? See how we have toplace it? Is she straight? Can you see? I think itshould have a very light background, so turquoisefrom here to here and maybe a very dark reddishhere." And finally as her assistant transfers theimage, she says "Now watch this! This is fast."
Assistant Samm Kunce says that working on agallery installation with Spero is, "Always freshand new."
"We never have a plan. We respond to factors,architectural, cultural, situational. And we neverget tired with it," Kunce adds.
The importance of process to this art cannot beexaggerated. As the installation progresses, andSpero learns that many of the pieces in theSackler's collection are funerary, she decides toinclude a Mexican image of a skeleton. "Isn't itscary?" she asks, holding up the black stencil ofa shrouded skeleton.
Spero's gentle presence and tone of homagebelie her complete authority. Only her shock ofshort platinum blond hair and her intense featuresgive clues to the vision which has shaped herwork.
In the past forty years, Spero has dealtextensively with victimage and brutality, war andrape, internal despair and historic cruelty. Hercurrent work is almost buoyant, featuringascending, leaping female figures and bright,giddy colors.
Spero describes herself as a "Director of a theater," and the images the culls from a vasthistorical and cultural range as her "Cast ofcharacters."
"I have to figure that this is like a stageproduction. This is part of the process," shesays, referring to the activity surrounding her,as two assistants transfer images on the walls ofthe gallery.
Spero says the fact that the installation willbe painted over in less than a year does nottrouble her. It "Gives it added poignancy, likesomething transitory. It's a memory of the piecesin the gallery."
Given the span of Spero's artistic career, sheis surprisingly cavalier about her work. Spero iscareful to emphasize that she is reconfiguring thepast, "Not in any scholarly or scientific way" butrather using "visual and psychic personalreactions."
Compared to the actual artifacts, she says herprints are "gross." The piece does not overwhelmthe gallery but "Spots the wall, takes its turf,heightens the space, leaves the museum, butchanges it."
"I like to think that all my art isopen-ended," she adds, "And that from thisinstallation I go to the next and then the next."Emphasizing process in Spero's means of "Alwaysreconfiguring, creating new personages."
Spero's memory is expansive and far-reaching.She remembers a time when women were shut out ofthe art world, denied a place in a male-dominatedsphere. In 1971, Spero was a founding member ofthe Artists in Residence gallery, the firstwomen's cooperative art gallery in New York City.
While recognizing "more of an awareness fromthe 70s on," she believes that making it in theart world is, "Still more difficult for women.It's still a question of biology. Although certainsensitive young men do take responsibility, thewomen still carry the child."
Spero says, however, "It's not just biology.Because of gender wars, society itself has been inmen's favor. "She uses primarily images of womenin her work in order to shift the balance, evenadding breasts to a male figure to convert it to afemale form.
Spero's "Raise/Time" will open in the SacklerMuseum's Ancient Art Galleries on February 18. Shewill discuss the exhibition in a public interviewafter a screening of the documentary, "Woman asProtagonist: The Art Nancy Spero," in the SacklerAuditorium at 6 a.m. on February 15.
Only in the past decade has Spero received theacclaim and recognition that her unique visionmerits. The dialogue which fills the gallery thisweek as Spero and her assistants pass questionsback and forth will continue. The finishedinstallation will question the Sackler's ancientwork and bring new color to ancient artifacts,exposing viewers to Spero's insistent voice andits demanding questions.
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