Capturing the inner essence of a person is one of the hardest skills to achieve in portrait painting. Chantal Joffe oozes her very own brand of the unrefined and crude in accomplishing this goal. One might say her brushstrokes appear clumsy, awkward and graceless but then many of her subjects live the very essence of that life which is, messy, cluttered and ungraceful.
Where is the logic in presenting the perfect, tidy and linear when in actual reality our lives are lived in a chaotic, helter-skelter kind of a way.
Taking inspiration from 20th century figurative painter Paula Modersohn-Becker whose naked self-portraits were the first done by a Western woman, broke ground for their frank and intimate approach. She painted what she saw as opposed to male stereotypes of what a female body should look like.
Likewise Joffe’s paintings explore the inner sanctum of our mind, bodies and situations. What we truly think, feel and look like. She places people in their natural habitat with offbeat stances and dreary bodily postures. The subject possibly unaware to the extent of the mental and physical picture Joffe’s undertaking whilst the person lounges in their underwear, sits awkwardly on a sofa or stares downcast into the room.
The nakedness on display is compounded with her pockmark of brushstrokes, Joffe’s candour at the way in which she presents the blemished person in front of the viewer. Legs are cut off at the knee. A body is hunched away from direct sight like an unwelcome intrusion. Is Joffe welcome at all and do her subjects really want her there? A women’s piercing gaze as she comforts a young girl clearly says no. The group of young girlfriends hanging out together says go away. Two young toddlers in black pinafores look unhappily upward.
And whilst the artificial colours and jauntily applied brush marks may suggest an element of superficiality, its a superficiality that Joffe loves. Her passionate, brash painterly marks are more like scars. The scars we receive going through life’s ups and downs. Highlighting the discomfort we feel in our own skin and similar to the embarrassment felt by many when having their photograph taken.
Shrewdly she takes away some of that self-consciousness by composing her portraits to the left, right, off-centre, up, down – and if you’re at full gaze then her subject fills the space with their presence. Yes we’re staring at people in their underwear when they’re feeling most vulnerable so why should that be a comfortable experience. In her own outrageous and gusty way she is representing the true hang-up’s of motherhood, pregnancy, teens and young children in a way that’s challenging traditional portraiture painting and media stereotypes. This is real life.
‘Personal Feeling Is The Main Thing’
On until 2nd September
Salford Quays, Manchester