The Gund


Art Review: ‘Nancy Spero: Maypole: Take No Prisoners’ and ‘No Justice Without Love’ at The Gund

Written by:
Jeff Regensburger

It’s demoralizing to be reminded yet again that art which stands against war, suffering, abuse of power, and social injustice will remain perpetually relevant (evergreen as they say). Yet, here we are, visiting the The Gund [Gallery] at Kenyon College in Gambier for a chance to see exactly that type of work. Don’t get me wrong, I love the passion, the perspectives, the risks, and the surprises that are brought to the fore when artists tackle such themes. I just wish it weren’t so relentlessly necessary.

Specifically, The Gund examines these topics through two powerful exhibitions currently on view; Nancy Spero: Maypole: Take No Prisoners, and the group show, No Justice Without Love. Timely and relevant, each exhibition presents both a compelling examination into these larger themes and also a glimpse into the personal, lived experiences of the artists.

Upon entering the galleries, viewers will first encounter the dizzying, monumental sculpture, Maypole: Take No Prisoners by the artist Nancy Spero. First imagined during the height of the Vietnam War, and borrowing liberally from her War Series (1966-1970), Spero’s gallery-sized work was not realized in three dimensions until its creation and installation in the grand entryway of the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Maypole: Take No Prisoners has been shown occasionally in the U.S. in the intervening years, and the chance to see it in person at The Gund should not be missed.

Juxtaposing the festive and celebratory folk origins of the traditional maypole with the horrors of war, Spero’s sculpture features some 200 decapitated heads hovering silently around a steel pole in an anguished dance of death. The heads themselves are fashioned from rough cut aluminum sheets, each unique, and all suitably distressed.

While pictures from the 2007 Venice Biennale show the heads of Maypole’s victims floating over the crowd of attendees, the installation at The Gund is lowered, providing visitors the chance to weave in and amongst the carnage. In this configuration viewers are literally face to face with Spero’s graphic horrors. We will bear witness, yes, but also share an unnerving sense of complicity. As spectators, we’re free to move about, to come and go, to look away. The figures in Maypole: Take No Prisoners are afforded no such luxury. They will remain, suspended and suffering, long after we’ve moved on.

That some heads hang from ribbons and some hang from chains is perhaps Spero’s way of suggesting that, regardless of our station in life, these atrocities will eventually impact all of us. Nancy Spero famously abandoned traditional painting for being “too conventional, too establishment.” Maypole: Take No Prisoners is a testament to the wisdom of that choice and to the artistic freedom it created for her. No artist wed to either convention or the establishment could have created a work as powerful and timeless as this.

In the gallery beyond Maypole: Take No Prisoners, viewers will find the group exhibition No Justice Without Love, featuring works by artists affiliated with the Art for Justice Fund (A4J). A4J is an advocacy group established to “end mass incarceration, shift the narrative around criminal legal transformation, and envision a future where shared safety is available to all.”

No Justice Without Love develops its working thesis from the writings of bell hooks, who suggested that any radical restructuring of our world must be centered in love. Given that the artists and supporters of A4J are deeply invested in the reform/abolition of the current system of mass incarceration, the restructuring envisioned by hooks has real and personal meaning (a number of A4J artists were formerly incarcerated individuals).

Not surprisingly then, many of the works featured in No Justice Without Love address that same carceral system. Marcus Manganni’s Panoptes presents a highly reflective steel and acrylic arc that mirrors the culture of surveillance we’re building with 21st century technology. Hinting in form and title at Jeremy Benthem’s infamous “all seeing” Panopticon (a 19th century iteration of penal efficiency that today’s prison privateers would surely applaud), Manganni offers a disconcerting and visceral glimpse of how it feels to be constantly under surveillance.

Mark Bradford’s modest relief Life Size presents a seemingly innocuous scale replica of a police body camera cast in handmade paper and painted with gouache and ink. This replicative method of artistic inquiry is fertile and well-trod ground to be sure. Artists from Duchamp to Johns to Koons to Celmins have explored the possibilities inherent in the material transformation of the everyday, though I’m not sure any of them got it quite this right. In this palm-sized work, Bradford raises a host of big questions about object utility, whose perspective counts, images as documentary truth, and the technology of policing. While small – and clearly a departure from the monumental works that define much of Bradford’s oeuvre – Life Size packs a big punch.

These themes of justice and power are carried along in Sable Elyse Smith’s Coloring Book 78 (a child friendly introduction to the U.S. court system), Faith Ringold’s United States of Attica (an atlas of U.S. racial and ethnic atrocities), and Maria Gaspar’s Disappearance Jail (a staggering documentation of Ohio jails and the land/resources/psychic space they occupy). Taken in total, the exhibition No Justice Without Love adds a visually compelling component to our conversations about policing, justice, power, and incarceration in the U.S.

And yes, whether it’s war, genocide, police abuse, or mass incarceration, it is indeed dispiriting to have these conversations over and over again. I’m grateful though for the artists who add their voices and continue to speak out. Theirs are personal perspectives on universal issues, shared frankly and rooted in the truth of lived experiences. I want to believe that those experiences matter, that those voices do have power. In fact, I have to believe it. It’s the only way forward.

The Gund Gallery is located at 101 1/2 College Dr. at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Nancy Spero: Maypole: Take No Prisoners is on view at The Gund through May 18, 2024. For more information, visit

No Justice Without Love is on view at The Gund through April 13, 2024. For more information, visit For additional information about the Art for Justice Fund, visit

All photos of artwork by Jeff Regensburger [see images on Columbus Underground].