Chantal Joffe at Victoria Miro
One enters the ground floor space of the Victoria Miro gallery and is cowered over by 7 large paintings, each around 2-3m tall. Each depicts a young, beautiful, unfamiliar female. The paintings here are each untitled and are rendered in a uniform muted palette of gritty blacks, transparent watery blues and clean, soft and sumptuous pale whites, creams and pinks. The pureness of virginal flesh. These are not women we can identify with; they are not friends of ours or distant family members (as we see in the floor above). These women are of the past, forever young and silent in faded black and white photographs. Some gaze out of the canvas with eyes alive with a realness that contradicts the distance created by the composition and palette. The energy contained in these eyes speaks volumes, they are poised, they are confrontational, and hungry for a journey. Indeed as the press release tells us, these paintings reference Joffe’s imagined visions of women artists who succeeded in a male dominated art world of the past, artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Alice Neel, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, and just like the act of looking at old black and white photographs, one looks at these figures and imagines all that these women of the past might have, or had achieved (Joffe’s decision to leave the works untitled is clearly her invitation for the viewer to assume these women are whoever he or she wants them to be). In the paintings where the figures do not look out of the canvas, they are posed in awkward semi-erotic poses, caught in a struggle with themselves. The effect created is one like a butterfly about to erupt from a cocoon; depictions of women either struggling with themselves or struggling to become themselves.
Walk up the stairs and one finds oneself surrounded by friendlier, but just as powerful (and just as large) paintings of more women, this time rendered in bright, clean, intelligently considered palettes. Joffe is a wonderful painter. She knows how to design strong, simple compositions that she renders beautifully in palettes that restrict dominant primary colours to either one or 2 in each painting, giving these saturated areas of colour space to sing and be complemented by the neutral, softer earth colours that surround. Her work with collage has clearly influenced her painting, as she has a natural flair for contrasting flat colour in areas of background or in flesh with vibrant, uniform patterned clothing or wallpaper designs. Her strong geometric compositions allow her to really push the way she uses the paint, and the way she celebrates in its materiality; drips in some areas, coarse, powdery matt black textured shapes in others, transparent washes and thick opaque dabs; they all work together to make visually stunning paintings. Like the works on the ground floor, the eyes are portrayed with such liveliness that one can instantly recognise the looks of longing, love, and loneliness in each of the figures. And her treatment of the paint reflects perfectly the women she has depicted – women you know or know of, not idealistic but beautiful warts and all, beautiful in their faults as well as their attributes.
Lisa Freeman, 22nd March 2011