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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Chantal Joffe

A portrait of the artist as seen through her studio.              
The twenty-first century is less than fourteen years old. We who follow art, past and present, await anxiously some indication of the direction contemporary Postmodern art may be headed. I don't often highlight living artists, much less those young enough to have been one of my students, but it's not often one comes upon a painter whose main body of work mostly falls within the past fourteen years and would seem to indicate so tellingly the nature of what we can expect during at least the first few decades of our adolescent century. Her name is Chantal Joffe (and for the record, she was never one o my students). She was born in 1969 in St. Albans, Vermont, though as an artist, she is thoroughly British in the tradition of Lucien Freud, Tracy Emin, Francis Bacon, and Charles Thomson.
The Big Head, 2003, Chantal Joffe
Self-portrait with Esme, 2009
If the family named, Joffe, seems kind of familiar, congratulations, you're at least a somewhat erudite follower of the British "arts and letters" scene. Chantal Joffe's mother, Daryl Joffe, is a noted watercolor artist, while her younger brother is the painter and novelist, Jasper Joffe. She comes by her genetic credentials as an artist quite honestly. Her academic credentials are just as impeccable, starting in 1987 with the Camberwell College of Arts, finally graduating with honors and a BA in Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Art. She received her MA in painting from the Royal College of Art in '94. Even before graduating, Chantal had gallery representation in Manchester followed by shows in London, New York, Vienna, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, and elsewhere in Italy. Thus she was perfectly position as an up-and-coming young artist of the twenty-first century.
Untitled 17, 1995, Chantal Joffe. She sometimes paints men too.
Dan, Eating a Banana, Chantal Joffe.
Her men are as unflattering as her
female figures.
Chantal Joffe paints almost exclusively women and children. And lest you make the mistake of classing her as a dining room tabletop painter or typical easel artist, know this: most of her works are painted from a scaffolding. Most fall within the ten to twelve foot range. Virtually all are expressionistic, many being portraits (of a sort). I think it would be safe to say that not since Willem de Kooning has any artist painted such unflattering images of the feminine gender, though Joffe doesn't go as far as de Kooning in that regard. De Kooning's massive madams were downright ugly--ugly for the sake of ugliness. Also, de Kooning was a man, and male artists have long been known for sometimes being unkind to their models on canvas. Chantal Joffe is not the type artist to be deliberately unkind, it's just that her paintings usually turn out giving that impression. She's not likely to be commissioned to paint the queen.
Untitled, 1995, Chantal Joffe. Her children are charming without being "cute" or "sweet."
Perhaps the most surprising element in Joffe's painting, given her Expressionistic style, is the fact that she works mostly from photos. Very few artists, bound to photos as their source, depart from them so readily and drastically. Her photos come from family albums, fashion magazines, advertising, even pornography. In fact, she claims her major art influence has been, not a painter, but the American photographer, Diane Arbus, whose work involved deviant and marginal subjects such as dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers--people who seemed ugly or surreal. In effect, Chantal Joffe is the painting equivalent of Diane Arbus.

Twins, 1991, Chantal Joffe. The Arbus influence (below, left) is obvious in this early work.
The Diane Arbus twins grow up and grow old.
Identical Twins, 1967, Diane Arbus
Critics have chastised Joffe for her "big, rude paintings." Perhaps, but Joffe works with minimal, almost effortless control of the paint. The first impression of her work is that of being simple and childlike. Her brushstrokes are broad, carefree, and unfussy. She is little concerned about stray blobs of paint or runny dribbles. Her highly liquid painting style has the effect of filling her subjects with personality and a somewhat disarming humor that is highly enjoyable while being strangely thought provoking. Working from a scaffolding makes stepping back to survey the work in progress difficult (even dangerous). Thus much of the distortion appears to have a Picasso-like quality, though such similarities, she claims, are largely inadvertent. For the most part, the persnickety British art critics love her work, one terming it; "...simply exquisite representations of femininity." I guess it depends upon how you define "femininity." Jarring as they may be at first glance, if this is the direction this century's art is head, it should be a wildly adventurous, if somewhat bumpy, joyride.

Untitled, Chantal Joffe. Is that Mary Lou Retton? No wonder it's untitled.


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