Jo Spence: Work (Part I)

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Courtesy of Jo Spence memorial archive
Jo Spence, Untitled, The Picture of Health?, 1982

There are so many contradictions in the life and work (you can't separate the two) of British artist and activist Jo Spence (1934-1992) that a two-part show seems appropriate. Out east at Space Studios we get her evolution from high-street photographer to 1970s 'cultural sniper' – from a cheerful actor, cigar clamped beneath fake moustache, to vital images of Gypsy children and the submissive arc of a mother's back, bent over housework as her children eat their tea.

Spence helped found the Hackney Flashers collective, so called because they went around exposing things, principally exploitation of women in the workplace and, thanks to inadequate childcare, in the home as well. It's heartening to note how alien many of these angry images now are – although some still aren't alien enough.

This first instalment is well stocked but garbled: there's no clear chronology and no need for the wealth of additional material. Spence wrote about her own work intelligently and at length: if we have her commentaries of, say, 'Beyond the Photo Album', do we need more? Maybe it's apt after all, since the debate about a woman's right to speak for herself is ongoing, if less vociferous than in the 1970s.

With Spence, it comes to a head in Clapham at Studio Voltaire (1a Nelson's Row, SW4 7JR), in her enraged documentation of her breast cancer diagnosis, her cavalier treatment by the NHS and her decision to reshape her life rather than lop off her breast. This is much more coherent, even though the Cindy Sherman-lite role-play images still feel terribly dated, especially so in her self-portraits with fake breasts or of her reading Freud in a goggly-eye mask. They do also, however, expose the principle contradiction of Spence's oeuvre: she was a feminist-activist, inventive, thoughtful and steeped in art theory, yet the cancer work has stuck so in people's heads that she is remembered as a victim. Actually, she recovered, only to die 20 years ago, aged 58, of leukemia. That's not contradiction: it's grim irony.

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