CHANTAL JOFFEby David Carrier
Cheim & Read | May 25 – June 30, 2017
Manet, Matisse, and, of course, Picasso painted significant portraits. And who could forget the magnificent portraits of Neel or Warhol—often said to have reinvented the genre? This exhibition by Chantal Joffe extends that tradition in a bold, extremely self-confident way. Her portraits depict lone women and girls, with the exception of Self-Portrait with Esme in a Striped Nightie (2016), where we see Joffe with her daughter. A number of these paintings show Bella, the nine-year-old daughter of a friend. Some of these portraits are very small, others larger than life, like the imposing Redhead in a Garden Chair (2017), which confronts you in the first room of the gallery: a formidable woman wearing a black skirt with thigh-high slits.
A gifted colorist, Joffe sets flat, boldly hued backgrounds behind her sitters. And she loves putting racy, heavy outlines around them. Despite such conventions, these are surprisingly varied pictures. Joffe doesn’t repeat herself—she doesn’t need to because she is consistently, magnificently inventive. Look at Highbury Girl (2016), which sets the blue in the sitter’s blouse against the blue background. Or focus on the woman’s luscious ochre slacks and brown coat in the magnificent Yellow Slacks (2017). Or attend closely to Natasha (2016), in which a dark-skinned woman wearing a white coat is set before a luscious green that outlines her black hair. Also compare Bella on Red (2016) to Bella in Yellow (2016): the first picture sets a flat, two-tone red and yellow backdrop behind the girl’s pink body; the second, which is smaller, shows her up close, wearing an ecru blouse against a turquoise ground, her face outlined by her brown braids.
The psychology of Joffe’s portraiture is elusive. Her subjects are often pensive, sometimes self-absorbed. In the petit Bella Standing (2016), the little girl looks away; in the dour Self Portrait in a Fake Fur (2016), the artist likewise refuses to catch our eye, and her expression is difficult to parse. In Esme in Tartan Coat (2016), the subject looks sly, somewhat guarded. In Self-Portrait with Esme in a Striped Nightie (2016), the artist, naked from the waist up, closely observes her daughter, who wears a magnificently striped garment (Joffe is as gifted at composing stripes as she is at depicting solidly colored garments).
What makes Joffe a contemporary painter is the boldness of technique and her radically simplified drawing. And what makes her a contemporary feminist painter is that the girls and women she depicts appear to trust her totally. Rightly so, for her tactful art respects their autonomy and glorifies the independence of her female subjects. To see a very different style of portraiture, go from Cheim & Read to Henry James and American Painting, the marvelous show up through the summer at the Morgan Library and Museum. How distant is Joffe’s visual culture from the world of John Singer Sargent, whose Henry James (1913) is on display? Compare, if you will, Sargent’s Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife (1885), whose image of conjugal life is positively Jamesian in its visible evidence of emotional repression, against Joffe’s depictions of proud, self-assured women. Joffe is a great artist because she mobilizes the resources of visual modernism and the intellectual traditions of feminism in the service of her portraits.
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.