Duston Spear has been an exhibiting artist since 1982 with her first New York show at the Soho Center (an affiliate of the Aldrich Museum). That initial series, named ‘Who’s Afraid of Art History?’, sampled an Edgar Degas portrait of 'The Bellelli Family’ with a combination of humor and homage. Spear cites being in the drum core of the Woman's Action Coalition (WAC) in the early 90’s as the best time for girl painters; band practice was held in Phyllis Kind’s gallery, while her two daughters waited while doing their homework.
The 3 Women in Black project grew out of that political re-awakening, in response to the war against women which was so integral to the brutality in the Balkan war during the early 1990s. In this project, Spear created three iconic black dresses, redolent with the imagery of war, mourning and widowhood. These were donned by many people during their lifespans, in many contexts including weekly vigils outside the United Nations, outside the NY Public Library, and in Belgrade at the height of the conflict. Spear's loft served as a gathering point for a collective of artist-activists that joined their creative forces against the war. The project was extensively covered: MS Magazine wrote about them, MTV interviewed them, and they created a site-specific installation at NYU's Grey Art Gallery.
Spear’s paintings of grunged-out 19th century silhouetted women were the basis for her mid career exhibit, ‘Battledress’, at the Weatherspoon Art Museum. Her artists books, articles and the original costumes are now housed in that Unversity’s Special Collections. Another series of paintings that involved physically braiding her older daughter’s hair turned into 'That Big Yellow Braid', a public art commission for Creative Time, that addressed both private and universal teenage issues at Manhattan’s Family Court.
Her younger daughter’s battle with a life threatening illness caused her to move with her family out of the city.
Spear began showing again in 2003 in Tribeca, with ’Topographies’, making a calligraphic battlefield out of Stephen Crane’s Civil War poems.
“There is an emotional gruesomeness to these works that is partly a reflection of the poem's meaning, but also a response to the visceral quality of the paint itself… the relevance of Crane’s political messages coexists with the essentially timeless nature of abstract painting.” ( Kristen Frederickson PhD, 2003)
For her next solo show, READ, at Sara Tecchia Roma New York in Chelsea, Spear graffitied over her own paintings to amplify the political statement. That same year she began teaching art in the College Program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum security women's prison. Spear incorporated the poetry of one of her students, former Weather Underground radical Judy Clark in a short film, 'Red Thread: The Prisoner and the Painter'.
“Spear has created a resonant dialogue between her own art and Clark’s poetry, a story of misplaced revolutionary desire for justice, defiance of the establishment, and thirty-plus years behind bars, where Clark has transformed herself and her mission. This is a tale of tremendous longing and accomplishment, lost and regained motherhood, twentieth-century history, and the courage of both prisoner and painter, resulting in a work that fuses transcendent beauty and jolting social truths.” ( Lucy R. Lippard, 2013)
Now with her most recent series of paintings, HIVES, and before that with HERD, we experience a fully realized painter, a woman who speaks to a complicated life encoded in paintings built on experiences, mistakes, good calls and actions.