Chantal Joffe made her reputation as a painter with work inspired by pornography and fashion, based on images torn from magazines. She is friends with the fashion designer Stella McCartney, has painted Kate Moss and Lara Stone, collaborated with the fashion photographer, Miles Aldridge, painting his wife the model, Kristen McMenamy, in her Islington studio, while Aldridge filmed the process. She enjoys what clothes do to the body, the excuse they give her to paint zig-zags, polka dots and Matisse-like patterns. Her work, mostly of women, questions how images are constructed and presented, subtly challenging the objectification of the female form, wrenching it back from the traditional ‘male gaze’. Recently she’s moved more towards painting friends and family – her daughter Esme, her niece Moll and her partner, the painter, Dan Coombs. The results are works of disquieting intimacy. It’s no surprise to learn that she has long been a fan of the emotionally jagged photographs of Diana Arbus, whose studies she describes as having: “everything about the portrait of a human that you can ever want.”
Joffe was born in 1969 in St. Albans, a small town in Vermont, in the US. When she was 13 years old her family moved to England and she went to school in London. But it was not until her foundation course at Camberwell School of Art that she began to find herself by ‘discovering Soutine, and all that paint.’ Now she has been invited to show at the Jerwood Gallery in Hastings, the beautiful seafront gallery with a view over the beach full of working boats. Beside the Seaside features a number of new and unseen works made especially for this show and reflects her long-standing links with Hastings where she frequently visits family who live in the town. She often draws on the beach, though photographs commonly provide a starting point. She’s not interested in literal truth but rather in what goes on under the surface, the awkward emotions that are held in check and frequently remain unconscious, only to leak through the publicly presented face. Just outside the main gallery is her 2008 painting of Anne Sexton with Joy. An American confessional poet, writing in the 1950s, Sexton was attractive, ambitious, manic depressive and suicidal. Like Arbus she penetrated shallow and socially conventional facades to reveal a brew of anger and suicidal thoughts. Here she is shown with her daughter and we can see just how imbalanced that relationship is. Joy looks away as her glamorous mother clings to her, voracious and needy.
The costal landscape provides the backdrop to many of Joffe’s portraits. But the horizon line and solid areas of sea, beach and sky trap and imprison rather than allow room to breathe. In Vita by the Sea, they emphasise the isolation of the subject with her defensive gaze, tight mouth and bruised watchful eyes, her androgynous, baggy, green checked shirt. In Brunette with Clouds the short-haired model stares out rebellious and passively aggressive. Is this a boy or a girl, hunched with hands in pockets? Brunette is a term usually applied to the female but a denim shirt open down the front might or might not be covering a flat chest or concealing breasts. While in Brunette by the sea, the subject stands against an unforgiving wall of blue sea, naked from the waist up, arms protectively clasped across their chest.
Defiance is mixed with discomfort in the portrait of Moll where she wears a mustard jacket over a black and white zig-zag skirt. Her hands are simply and roughly painted. Though there seems, no doubt, that they are clenched. She sits staring out from under heavy hooded lids, her blue eyes like lasers. In a painting done some three years before she’s sitting on the sea wall in a black patterned bathing suit, her knees locked self-consciously together. Joffe has caught that moment on the verge of puberty where Moll is neither quite child nor adolescent. Yet, in her face, we can discern the signs of the woman she will be in 30 years. In another small painting a group of young girls, including Joffe’s daughter Esme, stand with their arms around each other’s shoulders. They stare at the ground or off into the distance, keeping their own counsel, innocent and knowing, grouchy and enigmatic.
There’s a touch of Gwen John or Celia Paul in the wistful, slightly melancholy portrait of Megan in Spotted Silk Blouse. Though the application of paint is less ethereal, more assertive and visceral. The black and grey spots of Megan’s short sleeved blouse have been painted over a green ground, which has run down and dripped across the flesh tones of her bare arms revealing vulnerability. I read that Joffe is a great fan of the German painter Paula Modersohn Becker (1876–1907) about whom I recently wrote a novel, Girl in White. Immediately I can see the influence – the raw materiality and harsh brush strokes, the powerful, honest emotions, the distortions of scale and perspective for psychological effect. Joffe has said that ‘I paint to think’ and there’s a strong sense that her portraits are an exploration, not only of what it means to be a contemporary painter, but of the process of making an image of another person. Often executed on a large scale her works have a formidable presence.
Now she is getting older her concerns have shifted. Narratives are never explicit. Though the emphasis on age and generational difference are apparent in Self Portrait with Esme on the Promenade, 2014, where mother and daughter stand stiffly, the child apparently bored, the mother clasping her proprietorially. In Pinky, painted the same year, a middle-aged woman, face shaded by a blue sun hat, sits on a promenade bench, holding a small dog on a leash. Her shoulders slump as she looks out across the empty strand. Beside her stands a young black girl in a short white dress. We can only see her lower half, which in contrast to the wilting mood of the older woman is sassy, free and sexual. Beyond the slab of pink promenade appears endless and unrelenting. Despite being flesh coloured it seems to yield nothing, reminding us that in the end paint is just that, paint. But there is also tenderness in Joffe’s work, as in Naked Dan, 2010. Here her partner reclines like some sort of pagan Bacchus, all beard and rotund stomach, on a blue bedspread speckled with red roses. It made me think of Freud’s studies of Leigh Bowery. But this is softer, less confrontational, as Dan’s nipples and rosy scrotum echo the flowers on the floral counterpane.
Like the American painter Alice Neel, Chantal Joffe has an unfashionable capacity to reveal vulnerability and humanity. Through her nuanced depictions of body language and fleeting facial expressions, along with her mastery of the possibilities of paint, she creates ‘portraits’ that are perceptive, truthful and always slightly unsettling.
Images: Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro © Chantal Joffe
Anne Sexton with Joy, 2008, Oil on board, 244 x 183 cms, 96.14 x 72.1 inches, (CJ 518)
Brunette with Clouds, 2013,Oil on canvas, 182.9 x 121.9 cm,72 1/8 x 48 in, (CJ 827)
Megan in Spotted Silk Blouse, 2014, Oil on Canvas,182.9 x 121.9 cm, 72 1/8 x 48 in, (CJ 937)
Published in 3 Quarks Daily