Jo Spence: Self Portraits (4 stars)

Jo Spence: Self Portraits

Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, until Sun 16 Nov


Working class artist, photographer, Marxist, feminist, teacher and publisher Jo Spence was an extraordinary talent. Issue-based but always accessible, her work can be seen as the progenitor for the costume box magic realism of Cindy Sherman and the puckish Situationist antics of Tracy Emin.

Spence started out as a commercial studio photographer, but boredom and a desire to open up the possibilities for women to discuss taboo topics through domestic and professional photography set her on a different course. In her work with community groups she constantly utilised disciplines and ideas from outside fine art and photography. Brecht, Vaclav Havel, Lewis Carroll and the Dadaists were among her influences.

This excellent free exhibition builds on the ten Spence portraits owned by GoMA since the early 1990s. Digital prints have been donated by Spence’s dedicated archivist (and one time collaborator/partner) Terry Dennett. The work here (a small representation of this prolific artist’s ouevre) connects to a couple of key issues for Spence – her mother and cancer. ‘Tart’ (1978), ‘Love on a Plate’ (1989) and ‘Early Mother’ (1985) show Spence making the journey from coy feminist dialectic to maternal rehabilitation. The latter two are part of a photo therapy series Spence worked on with collaborator Rosy Martin in which she attempts to unpick the layers of self hatred compacted by class, roots and a self destructive mother, whose pinny-bound austerity Spence attempts to recreate with unsettling results.

At 46 Spence was diagnosed with breast cancer, which led to her most famous body of work, A Picture of Health? in which she recorded her treatment and growing dissatisfaction with the NHS and conventional medicines (she credits homeopathy for her eventual recovery). The artist eventually died in 1992 from complications arising from leukaemia. Fittingly, the show ends with Spence in death, her face photographed by Dennett and then mirror-spliced together in The Metamorphosis Series. With this work, Spence’s mischievous cycle of assimilation and ragged trousered philanthropy is complete, her influence on everyone from Jeff Wall to Calum Colvin, undeniable and irrevocable.

Jo Spence

  • 4 stars

Retrospective of the hugely influential British photographer (1934-92), comprising her mischievous, unsettling takes on class, femininity, self-image and the breast cancer which would ultimately kill her.

Post a comment