Chantal Joffe’s Limbo

Guest Contributor Katelynn Mills / Chantal Joffe�s self-portraits look back at us with a deadpan stare. Often they avoid eye contact altogether. But there�s something about Joffe’s paintings one cannot pin down. Her latest show, “Night Self-Portraits” at Cheim & Read, presents a kind of Joffe limbo. Honest yet deceptive, beautiful yet ugly: for all the nakedness here, Joffe remains mysterious.

[Image: Naked Self-Portrait Turned Away, 2014, oil on canvas, 24 x 20 inches. Images courtesy of Cheim & Read.]

Chantal Joffe, Night Self-Portrait in a Red Dress, 2014, oil on board, 84 x 60 inches

The essential ambiguity comes down to the artist�s relationship to her subject: is it one of attachment or detachment? In Naked Self-Portrait Turned Away, for instance, the entire face is smudged and out of focus, as if the image source maintains no emotional bearing on the artist. There is something tender and awkward about the way Joffe handles proportion that creates a visceral experience. The images may conjure detachment, but Joffe’s process–working directly wet-on-wet, blocking out loosely-painted fields of color–evoke her presentness, her humanity.

Chantal Joffe, Naked Self-Portrait with Esme in a Pink Nightshirt, 2014, oil on canvas, 96 x 72 inches.

Is Joffe trying to seduce or disturb? In Night Self-Portrait in a Red Dress, for instance, the way her head is gracelessly cropped off at the top and disproportionately large, the way she is not quite sitting on the chair, the truncated legs, and the confusing sense of space between her right hand and lap are all unsettling. But the strength of her brushstrokes, the color choices, the intimate content, the sure sense of light are seductive.

Joffe offers us an intimate, unpretentious glimpse into her world. The sitter, far from an archetypal image of female perfection, poses in common household settings, eschewing the glamor and self-delusion of an Instagram selfie. She could be anyone, yet Joffe paints with such bravura that transcends the personal. If there is a narrative or moral to be extracted from Joffe�s
work, it is obscured by a sense that her content is an arbitrary
platform–that  the language of painting may be the end in itself. Then again, she might be saying that the most profound experiences in life are ostensibly small and ordinary ones: living simply, being at home, spending time with a child.

Chantal Joffe: Night Self-Portraits,” Cheim & Read, Chelsea, New York, NY. Through June 20, 2015.

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