It was down to three shows in one year that helped to cement Spence's legacy: the first at [space], on Mare Street in 2012; the next, the same year at Studio Voltaire in Clapham; and the third at White Columns, New York, in 2013. A commercial photographer by trade, Spence had her own agency that specialised in family portraits and wedding photography. In the 70s she started taking self-portraits and photographs documenting her life. All this took a turn for the tragic when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982.
Jo Spence's work is defined by its politics – the site of her own body being one that she saw as a feminist battleground. She was rigorous and prolific in documenting her illness and her treatment; she interrogated the role of the patient, victim, sufferer; doctor and expert; hospital and institutional framework; and all of which found her at the centre, her body vulnerable under the various hierarchies of scrutiny. Though she eventually beat breast cancer, she was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1990, and it was then she decided to create her "retirement work": The Final Project.
The Final Project will be on display from Thursday 11 February at Richard Saltoun, the wonderful private gallery just a few minutes walk from Because HQ. “How do you make leukaemia visible? Well, how do you?” asked Jo Spence. “It's an impossibility.”
This work takes the concept of death as its starting point, but looks at it through the guises of cultures that embrace it, that take death and make it very much part of the experience of life: from Egyptian mummification to the Mexican Day of the Dead. By this time, Spence was becoming increasingly frail. She used collage and superimposition to expand her physical horizons, and plastic dolls and masks to replace her own body. These are works that are intensely material, beautiful meditations on what it means to be physical, and that human relationship to nature. As the gallery note, this project is a fitting monument to an artist who steadfastly refused to bow to commercial opinion of what a woman in the public sphere is "supposed" to look like. Here, she is fragile but honest, and always in control of her own image.
Jo Spence: The Final Project is at Richard Saltoun, 111 Great Titchfield Street, W1W 6RY, from Thursday 11 February until 25 March 2016.