The eyes have it: Chantal Joffe’s new portraits at Victoria Miro Mayfair
The American-born, British-based painter Chantal Joffe can be crudely clumped with Alex Katz, Elizabeth Peyton and, more more awkwardly perhaps, John Currin. All, bar Currin, are broad brushstroke, awkward, off-kilter portraitists of contemporary glamour and ideals; fashion nymphs, the famous, successful modern women and sun-dappled families.
Joffe, though, doesn’t do the (sometimes deathly) American dead-pan of Katz and Peyton, or Currin’s showy strokes and occasional cruelty. Joffe’s portraits are less surface, more impressionistic. And there is more going on in the eyes.
Joffe paints from photographs, and she is particularly influenced by the sometimes searing portraits of American photographers Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand. In her new series, now showing at the Victoria Miro Gallery in Mayfair, Joffe uses images of her own family, particularly her daughter Esme, and of the American confessional poets Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton. Here, their messy, tragic lives (and their messy, tragic minds), are gathered in some kind of order for the camera, a stab at the ideal. From mess ordered in metre to mess made order on film, Joffe adds her own mess; or simply makes clear the struggle to belong in a relationship – or relationships.
Joffe generally operates on two scales; very big or really quite small. All of the portraits here, though, are small and intimate, comprising both a series of group/family images and then protraits of women on their own. The collection includes a series of pastel drawings of her daughter, titled Family Pictures. Here, there is less drip and more dust, and more signs of physical effort and motion, imbued with a rare warmth and compassion – not a fashionable sort of praise, but praise nonetheless.