When you first step into Galerie Lelong, Nancy Spero’s “Maypole: Take No Prisoners” (2007) looks almost festive, with dozens of bright red ribbons hanging down and then swooping back up from the 15-foot-tall central pole. But it takes only a slightly longer look to register the 100 aluminum heads attached to those ribbons, as well as the variety of carnage they represent: bloody necks and faces, outstretched tongues, mouths open mid-scream or -vomit. If a dance occurs around this maypole, it’s one of violence and death.
Spero made this stunning work for the Venice Biennale in 2007, just two years before she died. But she first imagined it many decades earlier. In 1966, horrified by the US war in Vietnam and the gruesome images of it appearing in the media, she embarked on The War Series (1966–70), a group of frenetic paintings featuring bodies, heads, helicopters, and bombs, often expelling things from their openings and orifices. “They were manifestoes against a senseless obscene war, a war my sons could have been called up for,” she told art historian Deborah Frizzell. “These works were exorcisms to keep the war away.”
In one painting on paper, “Kill Commies / Maypole” (1967), Spero has rendered a central red pole with red and blue strings hanging off it, all ending in decapitated, gaping-mouthed heads. At the top of the pole flies a blurry American flag whose red stripes seem to have become a bloody mass, on which the titular text “Kill Commies” is written. Although it’s a finished painting, the work has the feeling of a sketch — a way to capture the hastiness with which the killing was being done, as well as Spero’s own anguished reaction. (“Maybe the strongest work I’ve done is because it was done with indignation,” she once said.)
When Spero returned to her maypole idea, 40 years later, the Iraq War was raging. The United States was replaying its leading role as an agent of death and destruction. This time, Spero would literally build the pole and drape the ribbons and create the heads. The viewer would be forced to physically encounter and negotiate the spectacle of violence, which the work instantiates not only in its overall form, but also in the bright red resonance between the festive ribbons (accompanied by some chains) and the bloody heads. The faces, hand-printed on aluminum, have an aged, almost mythical quality to them (one seems to be bleeding from its eyes, like Oedipus), as if they’d been ripped from some decaying, ancient text. Yet their extended tongues and pained facial expressions make their agony seem visceral and real. Maypoles are traditionally erected for festivals that gather communities to celebrate spring or summer; historically, executions and lynchings have also been events that bring people together. What does it mean, Spero asks, for war to be a ritual? How do we confront the brutal fact that violence is part of who we are?
Nancy Spero’s Maypole: Take No Prisoners continues at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 17.