Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Painters have the power


Another event to indicate that Detroit's artistic vitamins are maneuvering occurred last month at Wayne State University's newly constructed Elaine L. Jacob Gallery in the Old Main expansion. The space, devoted to "important local, national and international contemporary art," opened with "Contemporaries," an inspired survey of the work of Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, national figures with very aggressive, political and social artistic visions.

WSU's art and art history department, it seems, has made a serious commitment to contemporary art that's not "safe," that challenges the audience with issues not commonly engaged in Detroit's institutional galleries.

Detroit, unlike most other major American cities, has never had an endowed contemporary gallery with a budget to exhibit work that is part of a larger artistic dialogue.

Everyone who puts pen to paper about Spero and Golub remarks on their commitment to political consciousness at the expense of success in the marketplace. During the wild economic machinations of the '50s in New York, when the abstract expressionists cashed in on the art boom, Spero and Golub were working in an unhip, figurative expressionism in Chicago -- the "Second City," Spero quipped in an interview, implying its second-class artistic status during that period. Both artists were iconoclasts and distrusted the reigning styles of abstraction and minimalism which implied a fear of social and political responsibility.

Their works of that decade were interventions in public consciousness. Golub's paintings were and remain mural-like banners, depicting scenes of often violent confrontation. Vietnam was an issue in his paintings of the '60s, but his work implicated much more than the war. On a parallel track, Spero's work battles stereotyped representations of women and the history of abuse of women throughout the world.

The earliest Golub painting in this exhibition is "Gigantomachy V" (1968), a large horizontal canvas, unstretched and hung, bannerlike, by grommets across its top. Its cartoonistic title defines a spectacle, like an ad for a "Star Wars" movie. But the Gigantos aren't just two huge ideological constructs doing battle. In the painting, two otherworldly acrobatic figures clash on the left in a soupy green ground connected by a dark bloody field to two other equally heroic bystanders who seem to direct the conflict. "Gigantomachy V" is a mythopoetic image that analyzes the dynamics of Vietnam or perhaps any constellation of power. It is a logo bringing to public attention the profoundly shameful, ambiguous playground that two ideologies use as a battlefield. And they share as well the balance of power and insane quest for dominance with the keepers of that battlefield.

"The Site" (1991) is a more recent and subtler analysis of the dynamics of power. Depicted in Golub's technique of applying and scraping off paint -- so that the canvas is impregnated with pigment but, still showing warp and weft, resembles a worn medieval tapestry with an agitated surface -- are four vaguely recognizable men, three white men in suits and one of color in a leather jacket. Beneath them a fourth man is lying prone, presumably dead. There is in the drama an "algebra" of power, with the viewer equally implicated and left to solve the equation. The men's suits are recognizable signs of power. The complicity of posture of the man in leather is a frightening reading of the human condition. Depending on the position from which we read the painting, the three men in suits may be our agents -- or they may have bought our services.

Golub's paintings might be considered moral landscapes, and more recently streetscapes, which challenge our ethical systems by implicating the viewer in the calculations of power. Nancy Spero's assault is more of an epic gathering of evidence and image. "Notes in Time on Women" (1979) is an extended balletic work composed of 24 panels, each of which (20-by-104-inches) is made of four pasted papers that investigate the history of the representation and abuse of women. The piece combines Spero's lexicon of historical and culturally diverse images of women and texts that document historical and contemporary stories, speeding us along in a sensuous exchange of emancipating image and often painful narrative. The work needs space to breathe, to let the images float in their horizonless world and to be seen up close for the text to be readable. Unfortunately, it's hung on one wall in a cramped way, making it impossible for anyone to read all of the texts without a ladder.

Many of the panels serve the total in offering a specific thematic investigation. Panel 8 explores the worldwide oppression of women, and cites Third World women's resistance to problems which make American women's concerns seem minor by comparison. A portion of Sojourner Truth's statement to the fourth National Women's Rights convention in New York City (1853) is included. A brief interview from exile with Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, the mother of South African freedom fighter Steve Biko's child, also is printed on the panel.

The syntax of image, text and open space (silence?) in the panels is clearly a tool that Spero is deft at handling and it readily becomes a language in itself. Most of Spero's works employ a balance of image and text, or solely images of women, but always redefine how we see the female figure. In "Sky Goddess, Egyptian Acrobat" (1987-88), vertical panels with female images from disparate cultures, but without text, punctuate a narrative of the emancipation of women.

Most remarkable is the closely knit thematic dialogue that has transpired between Spero and Golub since they began working together in the '50s, all the while maintaining a vigorous artistic autonomy.

Jane Blocker, formerly of WSU's art history department, has written an intelligent, insightful catalog introduction and essay that deal with their intellectual and artistic communication over the years.

E-mail comments to

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.