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Peripheral Visions

Nancy Spero's CODEX ARTUAD

Increasingly, Postmodernism in New York has become the affair of fainthearted suicides. Perched on every available ledge in a city of skyscrapers - to the ablest climbers go the most visible - they proclaim the nullity of contemporary life and the end of art. Yet somehow these avatars of ennui just can't bring themselves to take the definitive step. And while they contemplate the abyss in a state of dramatized inertia, we watch them from below with rapt indifference. This reciprocal fixation is called "closure." No one, it seems, has sufficient sense, or pity, to yell "Jump!"

Yet it is action we crave, and a release from numbed voyeurism. And, outside the closed circle of this static spectacle, things are moving. Regardless of the prevailing assumption that out "fin de siecle" is an epoch of ceaseless repitition, there are growing signs of change. Not for the better, in all likelihood, but change nonetheless. For few at the top or bottom of society have the luxury of standing still. A senescent president muffs his lines but delegates his powers to mercenaries. Anticolonial wars of liberation become national wars of attrition which the "Big Powers" seek to manage. The combatants, however, remain murderously unmanageable. Meanwhile, with economic "booms" having a proven tendency to convert themselves into "busts" the speculative euphoria of the early 1980s dissipates. Already, giddiness has set in. Soon more resolute sky-divers may be crowding access to the highest windows.

Despite ourselves we are about to be thrust back into "history." The question is what - if any - art can respond to the dislocations that are destined, and what art is ample or savvy enough to convincingly instruct those who mistook sloganeering and publicity for analysis, and T.V. Time for their own uncertain lifespan. Not many come to mind. Of those who do, curiously enough, there are several already relegated to the purgatory of the immediate past. Chief among them is the painter-collagist Nancy Spero. Known as a "feminist" - which she most certainly is but which label has become a primary means of isolating and so disregarding her achievement - Spero, now in her 60s, is notable for her stamina and her stubborn refusal to be boxed in by stylistic, ideological or generational labels. All these factors would seem to suggest an eccentric, perhaps intractable art. Instead, Spero's work distinguishes itself by its openness and dynamism. That dynamism is of a unique variety.

Choosing her subject matter from the writings of Antonin Artaud - a genuine modernist who, to use his words, was all but "suicided by society" - , from grisly press reports of the persecution of political activists in the Third World, and from the mythic conflicts of the Gods, Spero strews her tableaux with episodes of extreme violence and anguish. Often, and most especially in her work of the 1970s, these images are rendered in a graphic manner of incomparable emotional urgency. Her gesture is harp and concise, her surfaces sore with abrasions, her colors a peculiar range of bruised ochres and black. For all that, however, her pictures do not preach to us from the position of a secure and earnest "humanism" - to choose the malignant an often misogynistic writings of Artaud as her text raises many of the same issues and ambivalences as Simone de Beauvoir's perversely pioneering feminist essay, "Must We Burn Sade?" Much less, for all its expressivity, is Spero's work, in the conventional sense of the term, "Neo-Expressionist."

Quite the opposite. Much of the new Expressionist work either implicitly or explicitly reinvokes the romantic cult of the painter as hero living out freedoms lesser men and women have been obliged to forswear. The subject of these paintings are acts of individuals, their scale a metaphor for the grandiosity of the artist's vision, their heft and "value" a promise of permanence. Everything in Spero's work contradicts these expectations. Spero has rendered the fat of Expressionism and preserved the sinew and the skin. Thus, though vigorous figures animate her work, and touch informs it, Spero's paintings, drawings and collages are remarkable for their almost ephemeral physical presence. Cut like monstrous paper-dolls or stamped with brittle contours on otherwise denuded sheets of paper joined end to end in scrolls, the very delicacy of her often tiny images heightens our awareness of the extreme situations to which they allude. And while heroes - or rather heroines - do appear from time to time, never does their maker intrude as a principal protagonist. What enthralls us is not the drama of the artistic creation but the political, historical and sexual dramas to which Spero, like us, is witness.

It is a drama of carnal torment, rebellion and celebration. In it women struggle against the violence done to them, parade their vitality and mock the authorities that would confine them to their rhetorical "place." In NOTES IN TIME ON WOMEN, for example, a nude female figure, legs spread, is catapulted over the quotation from Derrida, "there is no essence of woman, there is no truth about women, feminist women ... are men ..." Such critical counterpoint between text and image is essential to Spero's enterprise, and, it should be added, it has been characteristic of her work since long before the advent of currently fashionable forms of appropriation and deconstruction. The constant slippage from one representational code (pictures) to another (words), and often their jarring confrontation, results in a fully realized dialectic between perceptual apprehension and conceptual inquiry. Images do not exist merely as talking heads for a more important critical soundtrack, nor do words merely caption visual scenarios. Each sign, whether graphic or verbal, is both felt and thought. Each discourse is interrupted and answered by its contrary. Tidiness is inimical to her purpose.

To accommodate such a multiplicity of voices and languages, Spero has improvised a new pictorial format. Stretching the standard rectangle into long ribbons over which are distributed a wealth of disparate incidents, Spero has arrived at the perfect structure for a discursive as opposed to a narrative art, an unframed, uncompartmentalized version of the "bande-dessinee." (The English term comic strip, emphasizes content over form and is, for that reason, less useful here.) Hung in disjunctive groupings, some of these segments are positioned vertically and others horizontally. As in the case of the CODEX ARTAUD, the measurements of each distinct section may run from twenty inches in width to sixteen to thirty feet in length or height. On several occasions, moreover, Spero has overstepped the edge of her paper support and printed images directly on the wall, in a Lascaux-like dispersion of phantom-silhouttes. What Spero has done is to explode the conventional pictorial grid and permit its axes to extend at will in all directions. To follow the complex detail and grasp the complex syntax of a given series of these pictorial fragments one must constantly readjust one's gaze, jumping from one extreme of vision to another and then back to images too hastily scanned in the process.

In this respect, "reading" a work by Spero is akin to reading stanzas of shaped verse projected on a mural scale. And as with the best of concrete poetry, one experiences a uniquely active visual and intellectual engagement. Contradictions, digressions and ruptures in the flow of the line do not engender the sense of confusion and stasis that is evident in much recent work using the closed framing of the traditional easel painting as a means to impose an absolute relativism on a host of incommensurable symbols and modes of address. Rather, the notion of dynamic simultaneity, which was the hallmark of early modernism, returns within a new and expansive structure. The key lies with the viewer's capacity to exploit peripheral vision as a way of encompassing a whole that is always about to exceed one's scope, while at the same time using focused vision as a way to take full account of each of the dense images and phrases which flash within that field.

This, then, is the formal structure of a new "history painting." For that is what Spero has been up to for the past twenty years. Cross-referencing icons from the past with documents and emblems that invoke current events, her codices - contemporary hieroglyphic chronicles - depict a synchronous and thoroughly modern sense of time. No "mainstream" obtains; the sequencing of images is dispersed and channeled by numerous currents, tributaries and deltas. None of the "great narratives" circumscribes the range of her interests - niether that of Freud nor Marx nor any of the more recent theorists - yet all find a place within the spacious framework of her work, which also incorporates the generally ignored stories of the sexual, cultural and economic "Other." Nor is any apocalypse forseen, any halt to the challenges of perpetual flux. To grasp meaning thus requires a temporal equivalent to peripheral vision, a full acknowledgement of our involuntary and discomforting capacity for simultaneously looking back and thinking forward. "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," wrote Joyce at the beginning of the modernist age. Perhaps the most radical and truthful admission at the end of the modern epoch is that there is no "end," and that we have been awake all along. The idea of finality, it turns out, has been a weary daydream. Hence, in the last analysis post-modernism demonstrates that we cannot outrun, reenact or stop history - though we may at any point put a stop to ourselves - but must live in it as fully conscious of our circumstances as curiosity and tolerance will allow. Spero is one of a small contingent of artists who make that alternative seem not only conceivable, but in brief moments, hopeful.