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War and Memory exhibit confronts violence, realism

Vietnamese Women is one of the pieces in the exhibition Leon Golub & Nancy Spero: War & Memory.

Leon Golub and Nancy Spero: War and Memory

A dual career retrospective.

Works by Nancy Spero and Leon Golub.

MIT List Visual Arts Center.

April 18 to June 25.

By Craig Chang
Associate Arts Editor

A delicate and willful temperament unfolds when one listens to Nancy Spero rationalize the way she handled the artistic junctions in her life. The resilient artist articulates her move away from oil-on-canvas paintings toward her work with fragile paper as a subverted blow to the "establishment." Both an insider and outsider in the modern art world, Spero seems to have always understood that recognition is ephemeral, but the need to speak out endures.

Spero and Leon Golub, husband and wife and artistic partners for over 40 years, will exhibit their War and Peace retrospective in the MIT List Visual Arts Center this week through June 25. Originally displayed at the new American Center in Paris last year, the exhibit reconciles the various ways in which the artists have filtered tension and frustration, both in the context of their art and the world.

Their harrowing depictions assert a need to wrestle with wretched realities throughout history. Expectedly, both Golub's and Spero's works demand an unflinching eye. Brutality and torture sometimes precipitate in the form of psychedelic configurations and anguished monsters. The artists want the world to confront certain accepted behaviors, which if internalized would tear apart the soul. Their works seem to ask, "Why is this part of our world?" Viewing violence as catharsis is the irony of the power of their images.

In the exhibit, examples from Spero's War Series signal her gravitation toward paper media. The set disassembles various war images and redirects our passive acceptance with a subdued raging over the weathered opaqueness of paper. The personified helicopter of S.U.P.E.R.P.A.C.I.F.I.C.A.T.I.O.N. (1967) exists as a modern serpent, hanging corpses from its underbelly. Torture of Women (1976) blends text about atrocities reported by Amnesty International with a transfigured cast of stamped female characters. The Male Bomb (1966) diffuses half of a male figure and his serpentine penis with an apocalyptic mushroom cloud. Most striking is that here harbors outrage from post-World War II aggression within the fragile, almost intimate, dimension of paper.

Much of the couple's work is surprisingly collinear in its exploration of aggression and victimization. While Spero's works float amid the ironic pretext of delicacy, Golub's work projects images from gigantic linens that tower 10 feet toward the ceiling. His Gigantomachies epitomize the artistic effrontery characteristic of most of his paintings. The huge scale invests in greater scope, where generically masculine figures participate in victim-aggressor dialogues. He manages to freeze gruesome actions in time and engage us in a silent dialectic about the twisted way savagery endures.

But study the faces, and that man in Combat (1964) with the back of his hand cocked ready to strike has as tortured an expression as his victim. In Gigantomachy IV (1967), with its assailant wearing the expression of a crying man, gestures of violence, rage, and fear coalesce into a mirror reflecting the world's darker sides.

Some of the atrocities depicted in both Spero's and Golub's works are so particular that it is difficult to accept that the artists come from a similar, more universal, ideological space. They absolutely intend to be figurative in their paintings and also resist falling into an art-for-art's-sake philosophy. Their dark subjects shroud that they desperately want to play public roles in communicating a sort of romantic idealism about world issues. Golub likes to refer to them as "reality" issues, for he and his wife want to contact the real world through their work.

I was fortunate to have the chance to meet Nancy Spero while she was working on To the Revolution II, the entrance to the new exhibition. With handprinting techniques, she and her assistants were arranging a procession of women, moving toward the exhibition like a movie of female figures throughout time. She was reusing many stamps from such other works as her Codex Artaud series and Torture of Women.

I asked her about her rendition of what I thought to be an angelic figure repeated throughout many of her works. I took one part to be the wings of an angel, whose tips perhaps extended into large, sturdy legs - symbols of strength. Nancy pointed out to me that what I thought to be feathers of the wings were intended to be four breasts and that the figure really was an amalgam of an Egyptian Sky Goddess and the famous bronze statues of Romulus and Remus being nursed by a wolf.

I now understand that I was experiencing the rest of the exhibition in that one symbol, where so many images intermingled. Alone, Spero's and Leon's paintings stand for themselves like icons; the human figures are themselves the symbols of history. The dual retrospective, however, culminates into a reunion with the past, with all sorts of wars and their life in art.

In retrospect, the works of Spero and Golub seem so far ahead of their time. In the 1950s and '60s, they had to struggle with supercilious crowds in New York studios, and accordingly, Spero's Black Paintings seemed to shriek into a void of public avoidance. But she and her husband kept screaming with their work. Now, in 1995, the utopian Liberty Lady in To the Revolution II at the entrance of their War and Memory exhibition celebrates how the world has at last come to them and wants to listen.