sat 27/02/2021

Chantal Joffe, Victoria Miro Gallery | reviews, news & interviews

Chantal Joffe, Victoria Miro Gallery

Chantal Joffe, Victoria Miro Gallery

Theory and art battle it out: art wins, just

Chantal Joffe first came to attention in the 1990s with a series of paintings reproducing pornographic images, using a typically thick, impastoed paint and heavy brushstroke to depict hard-core acts in a defiantly flat, emotionless tone. Since then she has moved on, first to paintings reproducing fashion photographs, and now, in her new show, to images that re-imagine 19th-century aspects of femininity and femaleness in a 20th-century mash-up of psychology, anthropology and literary and art history. This sounds, unfortunately, rather less appealing than it is, for the images themselves mostly reward attention, even if the theoretical statements behind them have become increasingly divorced from meaning.

Six of the seven large images in the first gallery are single women, isolated by the brushstrokes and their dark backgrounds (the final one is a woman partly occluded by a shadowy male shape). All of them suggest negative, or at best pensive, emotional states, staring out, turning away from the viewers and, it appears, from the future. Yet all also appear to be young, gazing out into what might be. This dichotomy, this sense of observing the unobserved, creates a narrative tension, but one that for the most part then lies unexplored, and ultimately unresolved.

Joffe_untitled_2010_2On an image-by-image basis, some of the works are extremely appealing. One (main picture, above), a woman kneeling on the floor, hands defensively tucked in front of her, head lowered against whatever comes next, uses an attractively reduced palette of blacks, greys and off-whites, with small elements of the red/yellow spectrum creeping in slyly here and there, almost like little jokes, or tiny unexploded bombs. Another (Untitled (2010), pictured right), a woman dressed in seeming 19th-century style, down to her hair in a bun, turns away, hands again protectively crossed in front of her. The formal modelling of her profile echoes the hair, and is then butted up against the flat line of the background. Once more, the limited colour range makes the image cohere and gives it a sombre dignity that appeals.

These paintings all belong to a single cycle, referencing painters of the 19th and 20th century, and also feminist critiques of the 20th century. While the painterly inflections are worth pursuing, the attempts to posit a feminist theory of victimhood is reductive: the ideas may have been a useful jumping-off point for the artist, but they are neither fruitful nor useful for the viewer. It would have been kinder to the work to leave them as a subtext.

The most successful paintings here combine vast size (they average more than two metres in height) with extreme reduction and concentration of colour. In the second room, this feeling is emphasised with a fine Golden Woman (2010). Here the colour range is on a vivid gold/yellow spectrum, flat and glowing against the black-and-grey background: all the energy becomes sucked into the centre, the golden dress. Similarly, one very small (46 x 38cm) canvas, Moll (2011), has that same focused intensity, which in a larger version from last year is no longer present, but has somehow dissipated over the greater area.

Joffe_untitled_2010_3Joffe’s work walks a very fine line. When she is at her best the images have a dark, blank, affectless force that demands attention (Untitled (2010), pictured left). But the elements have to be just right to produce this power to draw the viewer’s eye, and when she misses, instead of affectless force, the images are just affectless: thickly impastoed recreations of photographs, which have no aura, no sense of being. By the dates of these paintings, Joffe obviously works very quickly indeed (this exhibition has 12 paintings from last year, six from this, which suggests at least one painting a fortnight in 2011, not allowing for discards, or unfinished work, or work that is not displayed). A more rigorous selection, or a longer period in which to consider the work, might have created a more even exhibition.

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