Chantal Joffe is a London-based artist whose work contains a striking purity, evident in her new show of paintings and pastels at Victoria Miro Mayfair.
The paintings are often of a single person and the poses are awkward, at times impossible. Joffe is described in the press release as a non-conformist feminist, and this is evident through the work: men are rarely depicted. When they are it is only alongside women and pushed towards the background. Background detail gives way to large swathes of colour that add no superfluous details to detract from the subject that Joffe is trying to capture.
Joffe paints often with the gesture of the whole arm as opposed to that of the wrist and fingers, and in this frequently paints larger-than-life. This exaggerated scale is a way of promoting the venerated subjects to that of gods. Giant-like they tower over us and we must look up to them. In all but one of the paintings in the exhibition, however, she has painted uncharacteristically small, adding layers of closeness and intimacy to the works that invite us in for closer scrutiny.
Precision is sacrificed so that an impression of the person can be rendered quickly, as if the painting is a frozen moment in time. Gestural brevity leaves the paintings somewhat fragmented: her works display the speed at which they are executed. Drips run down the canvas over foreground detail and lines overlap. It is as if she paints as quickly as possible so as to preserve more honestly her fleeting impression of the subject she is so desperate to capture.
‘Ted and Sylvia’ (2015) is a seemingly cheerful portrait of the smiling married writers Hughes and Plath. It is given a more somber tone when hung in the same room as ‘Assia’ (2015). ‘Assia’ was Ted’s partner during the breakup of his marriage to Sylvia, who, like Sylvia, tragically committed suicide by leaving the oven open and gas on. Even more tragically, Silvia also committed infanticide, killing their daughter Alexandra. Painted in cold blues and lilacs, Assia’s solemn face stares out at the viewer, as if she knows the fate that will befall her. Down the side of her face is an apparently haphazard streak of darker pink, which falls perfectly out of the corner of one eye like a tear. To those that are unaware of her story this is simply an attractive but melancholy portrait, to all others it is a chilling image of suffering and depression.
In the canon of art history, Joffe is perhaps the love-child of the painter Lucien Freud and photographer Diane Arbus, displaying the brutal honesty and poignancy of each. By exposing these works she offers us a glimpse into her world, showing us that which she values most and exposing the intimacy she feels for these subjects in the process. Joffe venerates the banality of family, hanging paintings of relatives amongst paintings of famed writers and celebrities. The elevation of her loved ones is a procedure used to cement their presence, and make them perennially immortal. Her work is a snapshot of the world as seen through her eyes, in all of its splendid imperfection.
Often it is the art is that which is the most sincere that we connect best with, and seldom will you see a more honest show than this.