Jo Spence (3 stars)

Photography as a tool for empowerment

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Image of a painting by Jo Spence

A predecessor of artists like Cindy Sherman and later Tracey Emin, Jo Spence was a formidable and pioneering artist. The exhibition at Stills pays homage to her life as much as her art, with a particular focus on the artist's 'Photo Therapy' work and earlier collaborations with the artist group 'The Polysnappers'.

In 'Middleclass Values Make Me Sick' – part of her Photo Therapy series – Spence is seen holding a placard that reads, 'If I don't need to please my parents any more, why should I worry about pleasing you middle class bastards'. Here is a woman with too much life experience to care what others think. Indeed, when this photo was taken Jo Spence had already been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The pursuit of honesty and self-realisation at whatever cost – even in the face of death – seems to be the driving force behind much of her work. Spence used photography – a medium she once used to produce commercial photographs of happy families – to confront less palatable truths and to question the authority photography has in representing reality. A particularly moving work shows the artist baring a battle-scarred breast, her head concealed by a motorbike helmet. This photograph represents the artist's defiance in the face of death: the illness may have disfigured her body, but it won't take hold of her mind.

Stills provides lots of information for audience members unfamiliar with the artist. Vinyl lettering isn't confined to the exhibition statement near the entrance, but accompanies the works themselves with quotes from the artist floating above and beside them. While such insight is helpful, Spence's work is so refreshingly blunt that it doesn't require further elucidation. In making herself vulnerable, Spence made it possible for other artists to follow suit.

Stills Gallery, until 16 Oct, free.

Jo Spence

  • 3 stars

Images from the English photographer whose work focused on themes of identity, subjectivity and health from a feminist perspective.

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