Chantal Joffe at Victoria Miro, London
Held across Victoria Miro’s galleries at Wharf Road, N1, and Mayfair, this exhibition by the acclaimed British painter Chantal Joffe features large-scale canvases depicting the artist’s family and friends, and selections from a year of self-portraits completed during 2018.
‘I think there are points in painting when there is literally nothing else you can do. You’ve got you, and you’ve got paint.’
– Chantal Joffe
Chantal Joffe brings great insight and integrity, as well as psychological and emotional force, to figurative painting. On New Year’s Day, 2018, the artist set herself the challenge of working on a self-portrait every day for the coming year. This daily practice – through personal lows and highs, in the shifting white light of a prolonged London winter and the savage heat of New York in summer – has resulted in a series of characteristically unflinching works.
On view at Victoria Miro Mayfair are selected portraits from this series. Modest in scale, each is a depiction of the artist’s face or a full-length view, in her painting clothes or, occasionally, naked, titled with the date of its completion. The seriality of this display is immediately striking. Ordinarily, a single self-portrait, perhaps two, might be shown among a wider body of work. Here, what is true of any single self-portrait – that in embodying their work, the artist invites speculation about their innermost thoughts – is amplified as paintings, ostensibly similar in appearance, are installed throughout the gallery.
Moving between the paintings, one might notice differences of light, shadow, or painterly touch; the minute changes that occur from day to day, as well as less quantifiable shifts of mood or atmosphere. While Joffe has always been doggedly attentive to the visual facts before her; sensitive to, but in the end unwavering in her commitment to the stark reality – physical and emotional – of a person, there is special economy to her self-portraits. Just the artist, a mirror, her materials… Each is a meditation achieved by the most minimal means. Yet there is also a sense of routine to the creation of these works. Humour and self-deprecation play their parts, too, as the artist applies herself again and again to studying the familiar contours of her face and body, following her own co-ordinates and topography as if she was charting an unfamiliar territory.
Similar but infinitely various, these works offer a rich alternative to self-portraiture’s idea of essential truth. In each painting the artist puts forward a face to the world. But in doing so she asks whether we could ever think of ourselves as being the same person we were yesterday, or will be tomorrow. Could there ever be such a thing as a single, definitive self? The relationship to time and selfhood in these works is complex. As much as they are in themselves transient, records of moments past, they are ultimately a declaration – an affirmation – of presence.
Joffe has often talked about her paintings in terms of transitions, those associated with growing and ageing, as well as her attempt to mark a life’s milestones. These concerns are especially pronounced in her images of mothers and daughters, such as the portraits of the artist and her own daughter, Esme, on view at Wharf Road, including The Squid and the Whale, 2017, a monumental work that is both intimate and universal. The ways in which we inhabit or enact gender, accentuated during times of accelerated transition such as adolescence, are equally present in portraits of Herb, the son of a friend, whom Joffe has painted for a number of years. In Herb at Sixteen, 2018, Joffe captures him at a poignant threshold, exuding both the vulnerability of youth and the coolness of a matinee idol.
Together, the works build upon complex narratives about connection, perception and representation. They alert us to the endless nuance of bodily expression; the myriad ways in which we reveal ourselves and communicate emotion, such as happiness, sadness, confidence, doubt or even distraction, whether we like it or not.
A new publication featuring a text by writer and critic Olivia Laing will accompany the exhibition.
at Victoria Miro, London
until 18 May 2019