Visual Arts: Women on the edge of ecstasy

Tom Lubbock loses his way in Nancy Spero's free-flowing visions of a female utopia
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Indy Lifestyle Online
PICTURES are good at paradise. One reason is that unlike written stories, they only need to show a single moment of their blissed-out worlds. They don't have to imagine what happens there on a day-to- day basis. All the same, these visions can become a little oppressive - lots of singing and dancing, lots of lying around, all right for a holiday but you wouldn't want to live there. Sometimes indeed, as with the illustrations to Jehovah's Witness leaflets depicting a universal picnic in national costumes in a safari park, the promised land looks distinctly off-putting.

There's a kind of women's version of paradise on view in Birmingham now. This is Let the Priests Tremble by Nancy Spero, American artist and feminist. It's a big free-form mural painting, spreading over all four sides of the largest room at the IKON Gallery's new premises. With its multitude of multi-coloured female figures floating floor-to-ceiling around the high, bright space, it's a fine advert for the architecture. It's also a paradise that looks more like liberty - a picture without a frame and without a central focus, an open all-around ground on which the images are scattered in groups or singly, with plenty of white breathing and moving space between them.

Spero's is an art of quotations, a form of collage. She is 72, and for the last 20 years, since she gave up straight painting, her work has deployed a growing scrap-book of found images of women taken from a wide range of sources. Hand-printed on these walls you find figures from Egyptian tombs, Greek vases, aboriginal rock drawings, gorgons, Meso-potamian mother goddesses, the strange creatures of mad art, body-builders from muscle mags. There are pert, leather-bound nymphets from porno comics. There's the Celtic fertility gargoyle, the Sheela-na-gig, holding open her vagina with both hands.

Dynamic, aggressive, tormented, ecstatic, grotesque, or obscene, they're all of then caught up in a celebratory Maenad dance, rushing in headlong stampedes, spinning off in serene flight (though sometimes taking time out in more static tableaux). It's a paradise in opposition, too. The full title, whose words bound across the walls in red lettering among the images, goes: "Let the priests tremble, we're going to show them our sexts! Too bad for them if they fall apart on discovering that women aren't men, and that the mother doesn't have one". The declaration quotes Helene Cixous, French feminist philosopher. "Sexts" evidently means genitals. The call is: Up the fanny!

Of course, this may not seem a very persuasive paradise - in fact it might be a rather vapid gyno-utopian fantasy which imagines women rescued from history, set free, and united in a wild, trans-cultural, triumphal get-together. (And the Cixous quote surely isn't encouraging, too thrilled by its own daring rebelliousness: yeah, get you, priests!)

Well, the utopian impulse is there, but the collage technique gives it a turn and an edge. The images are lifted out of their times and places, and set together; at the same time, as with any found images, they don't lose the memory of their original contexts and identities, which pull them back and pull them apart. This is why the collage is important. If Spero had painted the figures herself from scratch, you wouldn't feel that tug.

As it is, these women plainly don't belong in the same big picture. Their styles and scales clash. The groups and stories they form are never quite in synch. Their original actions tell against the ways they've been manipulated - turned upside down, superimposed, or subjected to multiple repetitions. Dildo-brandishing vase-figures fall over backwards. A dozen Sheela-na- gigs are linked up, arm-in-arm, into a slightly absurd chorus-line.

So there's a continual tension between the images and their reusage, which puts drama into the timeless, sisters-doing-it-for-themselves revels. Partly the figures are liberated, made protagonists of their own world. But they're also, so to speak, surprised to find themselves placed on this new and communal stage. They meet in incongruous encounters, friendly or farcical. And they're clearly the playthings of the artist's helping hand, the artist here playing Goddess, super-choreographer, putting them through their paces in designs which, again, the participants can't help resisting. Utopian unison is always on the point of breaking down; thus a more credible and more desirable utopia.

At least, this kind of performance is something that Spero's art always promises. I certainly think that free-form mural - as opposed to the separate scroll pictures she other-wise makes - is its ideal format. But when it comes to specifics, I don't see that the potential tensions are realised very often.

The chorus-line is good, but her juxtapositions usually don't bring their figure-elements to any particular new life. Anything, it seems, can go off with anything, meanings spin off in random ways, the surprises don't really. Attention wanders. No doubt this is all in the cause of a general air of liberty, a drifting, non-structured "womanly" aesthetic of loss, but eventually it loses me.

The other artist in IKON's opening show is a young British one, Georgina Starr. I must admit, I've never liked her work, didn't expect to here, and didn't. What's more tricky (in terms of trying to describe it in a way that isn't completely numb), I can't really imagine what even its fans manage to admire in it. I guess they must find the oafishness zany, and the naivete piquant or somehow deceptive.

Tuberama is part video, part installation. The video shows a very crudely, animated and childishly told cartoon story. Passengers on an uncomfortable underground train journey are transported to a magic castle, where a magician makes little creatures out of the 'weakest emotions' of each one, for them to take home in a jar and nurture. The walk-through installation looks like the set of a low-tech kids' TV show, and kind of tells the story again, with cut-out figures, a castle, and a model tube-train that goes round and round.

All I can think of saying is that the cartoon itself would be lucky to be shown on big or small screen; that if you find all this fun, it could only seem so in the rarefied air of an art gallery, if you find it thoughtful, that's a tribute to the generosity of your own intelligence, and if you find it a disturbing psychodrama, you must be of a very nervous disposition.

Nancy Spero & Georgina Starr. IKON Gallery, l Oozells Square, Brindleyplace, Birmingham B1 2HS (0121 248 0708): until 24 May; free admission.

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