Chantal Joffe at Cheim & Read
May 7 to June 20, 2009
547 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 242 7727
Chantal Joffe was born in 1969 and attended the Glasgow School of Art, receiving her master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London. She is part of a group of painterly artists such as Jenny Saville and, as the press materials point out, tends to work from secondary sources, including magazine ads, fashion spreads, and snapshots. Her swift manner of painting emphasizes broad swathes of paint, while her forthright models—mostly women—show us the thematic equivalent of Joffe’s bold painting style. Like Elizabeth Peyton, Joffe tends to take her figures from fashion sources, but the emotional content of her style shows that, unlike Peyton, she is not so interested in idealizing her generation. Joffe imbues her figures with a matter-of-fact realism, which gives her the chance to portray both the figures’ exposed emotional states and the ambient effects of their clothes and immediate surroundings. The work is psychologically telling without giving up formal interest, and satisfies on both levels.
Kelsey (2009), at 84 by 55 inches a large oil on board, presents an enigmatic female, with a mildly sour expression, big eyes, and hair pulled back from the top of her head. She is wearing a light pink camisole, whose length emphasizes the length of her torso (the painting ends at the dancer’s waist). With her arms crossed in front of her, and a shadow leading from the side of her face to the top of her clothing, Kelsey presents herself idiosyncratically,
in ways hard for the viewer to forget. Her slightly troubled, slightly troubling countenance is matched by a sober self-possession. Emphasizing her expression, however, does not allow the viewer to appreciate the simple but boldly painted figure, with drips running down her front and over the crook of her right arm. A graying, off-white background, in key with the sitter’s camisole, emphasizes a certain blankness of presentation. Another seemingly simple but actually complex female portrait, entitled Career Girl (2009), shows us a young woman with long brown hair and a quizzical gaze into the distance or future. She is wearing a white blouse with a fold; her hair drapes over her right shoulder as she raises her right arm to grasp the other side of her head. Again, painterly drips run down the length of her head and clothing, while Joffe’s portrayal of her face is unusually angular—her chin juts out at the viewer. Career Girl is close to illustration, but a fully decorative interpretation is checked by her serious demeanor.
There is a large (84 by 60 inches) oil on linen named Self-Portrait with Esme, which shows Joffe, clad only in underwear, curling over a small child, similarly undressed. The two figures appear to be in the bathroom, about to take a bath. The hovering female figure of Joffe feels protective rather than overbearing, while the child—a boy?—charms us with beautiful features. The style of the work, as with most of the other paintings in the show, feels swift; Joffe is not a perfectionist. Instead, she is intent on capturing a moment in time, not with a photographer’s precision, but as a painterly tableau that shows off feeling and the artist’s desire to connect with her audience. Large patches of color reduce form to simple, but never simplistic, statements that resonate in viewers, who appreciate the directness of Joffe’s offerings. Kristen (2008), a very large portrait (96 by 72 inches), shows a woman in underclothes and black high heels; sitting on a brown couch, she wears an undershirt revealing her breasts, and striped stockings that emphasize the shape of her legs. Her gaze is off to the right side of the painting, while her arms drape over her legs. In its sly informality, the portrait Kristen brilliantly enhances our perception of her as an individual, who despite her undress conceals more than she reveals.