Monday, December 30, 2013

Entry - 12.30.13

In my last entry addressing the work of Antonio López-García, I observed how the “realist” label is haphazardly applied to artists with very diverse aims and techniques and questioned whether, at this time, the term has any meaning whatsoever.  I think the Modernist Revolution created an artificial gulf between those artists who depicted recognizable imagery and those who did not, with the result that many artists found themselves grouped into a camp with which they felt no particular philosophical allegiance.  That being said, I would feel comfortable applying the label “realist” to López-García.  In his work, he strives painstakingly to document the external semblance of his subjects, recording minute details during exhaustive sessions and taking measurements to ensure the accuracy of his observations.  As much as I greatly admire his work, I cannot help but raise the question of whether, by focusing on documenting a visual or physical reality, the artist has neglected to address the emotional facet of his subject matter.  Perhaps López-García would respond that it is the responsibility of the viewer to provide the emotional context to his paintings and sculpture, which I think would be a fair answer, but I, being ever of two minds, have to wonder if an artform which attempts to portray subjective, emotional responses to subject matter may more successfully capture the human condition.

In a previous entry, I wrote about my early interest in expressionism, an interest that continues to this day and, at times, became fairly obsessive.  For many years, I painted in my own “expressionist” style and explored woodcut and linocut printmaking techniques, modes of replicating images favored by the German Expressionists, particularly the “Die Brücke” group.

Wickham - John Matthews - 1983

I recognized that an immediate technique that emphasized critical features while minimizing superfluous detail, that permitted color to function as an expressive element untethered to visual reality, could serve as the perfect vehicle to capture the ephemeral nuances of human emotion.  I was fascinated by the expressionist work, in particular, the portraiture, of late nineteenth and early twentieth century artists like Edvard Munch, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Egon Schiele.  The visages of their subjects seemed more “real” to me than those depicted in art previously.  Their images mirrored the literature that I was interested in at that time, writing that unflinchingly dissected the motives and perspectives of complicated and flawed characters, work produced by such authors as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun, Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev.

Munch - The Painter Paul Hermann and the Doctor Paul Contard - 1897

Heckel - Portrait of a Man - 1919

Kirchner - Sitzendes Madchen - 1910

So in a roundabout way I now arrive at the main subject of this entry: Chantal Joffe.  As is probably the case with most individuals interested in art, I enjoy combing through the vast arrays of images that result from random searches on the internet.  It’s a very democratic process that doesn’t favor established artists over amateurs.  For instance, a search for “Dutch self-portraits” could bring up a masterpiece by Rembrandt straddled by a work painted by a Haarlem art student and a cell phone selfie of a grandmother from Amsterdam.  The viewer will open a thumbnail if it impresses or intrigues him, usually without regard to its source.  Many times while doing this, I have been disappointed upon inspecting a full screen image of a thumbnail that caught my attention, but, on the other hand, I have come across many gems that I would probably never have discovered through any other means.  It was during one of my random searches that I happened upon the work of Chantal Joffe.

I was previously unfamiliar with the work of Chantal Joffe.  Even now, after doing a bit of research on her, I’m not sure what kind of a reputation she enjoys in the art world.  I do know that she received serious art training (BA in Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Art and MA from the Royal College of Art), has shown her work in many solo and group exhibits and has received a number of awards, the value of which I am ignorant.  Though born in Vermont (1969), Joffe is an English artist, currently residing in London.  She generally works from photographs gleaned from a number of sources: advertisements, family snapshots, fashion magazines and pornography, but I did find one interview in which she talks of working from the live model.  She prefers painting women, at times accompanied by children.  Her technique is loose and painterly, her energetic brushstrokes spanning the length of her sizeable canvases.

Joffe - Anna B -2012

Joffe - Brunette with a Bob - 2012

Joffe - Green Dress Black Knickers - 2009

Joffe - Kristen - 2010

Joffe - Megan - 2010

Joffe - Self Portrait with Esme - 2009

Joffe - Self Portrait (Year Unavailable)

Joffe - Topless in Purple Gloves - 2009

Joffe - Untitled - 2010
I was surprised to learn that the sources of her imagery are often commercial or salacious in nature because her paintings exude an intense aura of intimacy.  Of course, Joffe is not trying to replicate a photographic image.  She eliminates detail, paring down the information provided by her source material to a minimum, and hopefully, in the process, capturing the intangible essence that initially caught her attention.  She distorts, again partially out of that same sense of economy that permits her to generalize but also to intensify the viewer’s connection with her subject.  For instance, the ashen flesh tones in Self-Portrait with Esme remind us that this is an intimate scene, that these bodies, hers bloated and sagging, the child’s fragile and twisted, are not commonly on display, that under normal circumstances they would not see the light of day.  The exaggerated contrast between darks and lights emphasizes the fact that this image is derived from a poor quality snapshot taken with a flash, a personal family photo documenting a moment shared between an adult and a child.  Or in Megan, the atrophied and twisted legs sheathed in black tights lend an aura of vulnerability to the model.
When looking at Joffe’s work, we should have no doubt that we are witnessing the results of an artist imposing her imprint on a facet of reality.  Her canvases with their intuitive brushwork, energetic splatters and drips of paint and blatant distortions of form and color attest to this fact.  Through an illusive alchemy, she transforms banal subject matter into powerful images that thoroughly engage the viewer, suggesting that momentarily the veneer that shields the private from the public has been penetrated.  Without a doubt, Joffe is tapping into a deep emotional core when approaching these works and uses her source material merely as a framework on which to hang her very personal and subjective interpretations.  Her willingness to empathize with her models and assert her personal emotional response allows her work to document a subjective dimension of being, a critical component of any art that is purported to merit the label “realist”.
Let me know how you respond to Joffe’s work.  Am I seeing something that isn’t there?  Or do these paintings move you too?  Please comment here, or, if you prefer to comment privately, you can email me at

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