Critics’ Picks

View of  “Jo Spence: Work (Part II),” 2012.

View of “Jo Spence: Work (Part II),” 2012.


Jo Spence

Studio Voltaire
1a Nelsons Row
June 14–August 11, 2012

If it is possible to confront without being confrontational, then “Work,” a two-part exhibition of Jo Spence’s archives, has achieved this. The collection of photographs, slides, books, a BBC Arena documentary about the artist, and clippings presented here unfold chronologically. While some works are framed, others remain as posters or are hung simply with a laminated red and black mat, suggesting a candid report format to recount Spence’s transition from commercial portrait photographer in the early part of her career, to activist photographer cataloguing the Hackney Flashers collective, an all-female socialist artist group that she was closely associated with between 1974 and the early ’80s (the latter was the focus of part one of this show, and was on view at the London gallery SPACE earlier this summer). Simultaneously, Spence began journaling her own body, here demonstrated with a re-presentation of the series “Beyond the Family Album,” 1979, which includes photographs of Spence as a child with concurrent articles and text entries; for instance, a picture of her as a baby is positioned above one of the middle-aged artist identically posed on a black couch—unclothed, lying on her stomach and propped up by elbows, face toward the camera—with the caption “1934-1979.” The photograph references nude portraiture while also demonstrating marks of time on the body.

Traces of the medical system on her figure became the primary subject for Jo Spence’s work following her breast cancer diagnosis in 1982, and works on this theme make up part two of this exhibition. Here one sees how Spence rigorously detailed scars from her surgeries (“The Picture of Health,” 1982–86) with images and text descriptions that range from her attempts at herbal healing remedies to her troubled interactions with the National Health Service, the public medical entity she was then subject to—which is now facing government scrutiny and controversial reforms. As with her earlier biographical work, the success of these accounts lies in Spence’s singular use of honesty and humor to address personal struggle while resisting sentimentality.