On the Paintings of Chantal Joffe

It has been a long time since I discovered an artist whose work I immediately wanted to see in the flesh. This used to happen all the time when I was younger, at the point in my life where I was discovering art history and the tropes of different eras gone by. I can remember getting numerous books out of the library and pouring over them with the concentration of a cat watching a mouse. Slowly over time I built a vocabulary of preference and a collection of my strongest influences – Egon Schiele being one of my most early and significant inspirations. I used to copy artists’ work in order to try and understand it as fully as I could; I would sit for hours on my bedroom floor curled over drawings, trying to highlight the muscular tones in echo of  Michelangelo sketches, trying to alter the pressure points of my instruments in accordance with the energy of Schiele’s pencil work. Pages scattered all over the floor, smudges of charcoal and rubber detritus on my carpet. I took training myself in this way very seriously and it is something I have not done in a long time, but have been thinking about returning to recently.

Brunette in car, 2013, Chantal Joffe

This urge to return to such vigorous study is derived not only from the fact that I am out of practice with drawing, but also given the collection of artists’ work I have recently been engaging with and seeing in exhibitions (most recently Egon Schiele and Francesca Woodman at Tate Liverpool, but more on that another time). The latest body of work I have fallen in love with, is the art of Chantal Joffe. She is a portrait artist, based and working in London whose artwork primarily focuses on themes of maternity; often depicting mothers and children. Her sitters are mostly friends and family, with self-portraits also featuring heavily throughout her work. She is a figurative painter, but with a highly contemporary style; distorting angles, proportions and colours. Her painted elbows protrude at awkward off-angles and eyes appear goggle-like and wide; all seeing.

Self-Portrait with hand on hip, 2014, Chantal Joffe

Zesty green springs up in outlines, oil cascades down the canvas, brush strokes evoke the energy and personality of the sitter. Her work is raw, personal and emotive. It calls to mind several other painters, including the renowned Lucian Freud with his careful layering; Maria Lessing; with her gentle palette of pastel-coloured paints and Victoria Crowe; for her intimate depictions of her subjects. This sense of intimacy between subject and painter is what resonates most strongly with me in Joffe’s work. Her portraits convey an air of familiarity; her poses a sense of the ‘girl next door’. The paintings are paired back and have an elegant simplicity, allowing Joffe to fluidly depict the subject’s essence. It helps of course, that Joffe has a personal relationship with most of her sitters.

Megan, 2010, Chantal Joffe

I discovered her work through the writings of Olivia Laing, who is amongst those that have sat and posed for Joffe. According to Laing, Joffe ”allows her sitters to possess themselves [1]”. The poses are far from constructed; instead they are embedded with a self-consciousness, a sense of self and independence in the sitter. Mothers embrace their children, women clasp their hands, people avert their gaze and Joffe captures these natural rhythms taken from motion and frozen in time through paint.

Chantal Joffe’s portrait of Olivia Laing.

Olivia Laing, Chantal Joffe,

 

Sources:

[1] ‘Painting is a high wire act’: Olivia Laing on sitting for the artist Chantal Joffe, The Guardian, Sat 12 May 2018 

[2] ‘Mother Figure by Gemma Blackshaw’, Victoria Miro

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The Vagaries and Misconceptions of the Modern Man, Vane Gallery

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Not Really Understanding Stuff: A Reptile Reliquary (2017)

One of the most powerful and vibrant exhibitions I have seen in a long time is The Vagaries and Misconceptions of the Modern Man, a three-man show recently concluded at Vane Gallery. Featuring the work of Ralph Darbyshire, Richard Hollinshead and Kenneth Ross, the exhibition focuses on the conditions of modern man; paying close attention to themes of politics, sexuality and violence. Upon entering the gallery visitors are greeted by an enormous sculptural crocodile, heavily embellished with decorative textures and written prose. Initially the vibrant gems and beaded decorations appear to be delightful and colourful compositions, yet upon closer inspection a deeply sinister component becomes evident; most prominently with a deflated blow up doll occupying the crocodile’s mouth. Alongside this, dispersed across the colourful décor are horrifyingly gruesome images taken from the internet. A sinister challenge to the delight one feels when initially greeted with the reptile, the crocodile sculpture poses a stark conflict for the viewer. Yet what is most concerning as one inspects the dark images, is the calmness with which the viewing process occurs. Subsequently, comes the disturbing reminder of the extent to which the internet has desensitised society to representations of violence. As artist and theorist Hito Steyerl notes, we live ‘in an age of unrepresentable people and an overpopulation of images’ [1].

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Not Knowing (2011)

Not Knowing (2011) further explores this concept, with a portrait of the artists head occupying the circular disc atop the sculpture, alongside post-it notes stating his lack of emotion at viewing an execution. Through the grotesque and Guernica-like composition of Not Knowing, with horse heads protruding from both the mouth and rear ends of the sculpture, as well as the machine guns and post-it notes which litter the body; Darbyshire encourages the viewer to confront the brutality featured within his work. With the increasing circulation of imagery in our digitally rampant world, it is hardly surprising violent images have become desensitised, yet it is equally disturbing. By recontextualising such imagery within a sculptural format, Ralph Darbyshire forces viewers to examine their individual position in relation to the broader scope of violent documents.

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Not Knowing Details (2011)

Alongside the sculptures of Darbyshire, sits the work of Richard Hollinshead. Taking inspiration from classical Greek sculpture, Hollinshead reinterprets the male figure within a contemporary context. Dependable Bodies (2016) is one in a series of etchings depicting a muscular body with exposed tendons and bodily deformities. Alongside the figure sits a skeletal form, crouched and subtly present against a back drop of foliage.  Accompanying this work, Hollinshead presents a reclining figure perfectly sculpted in mixed media. This figure sits upon a piece of gym equipment, with a towel draping across the back of the apparatus he appears to be utilising. Both works utilise a highly muscular masculine body, perfectly toned in the abdominal region with accompanying bulging leg muscles. The idealised representation of these figures is highly suggestive of gym culture and body-building; activities which are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s image-orientated society.

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Sanit Forma (2018)

According to Jacqueline Rose, artists engaged in sexual representation ‘draw on tendencies they also seek to displace’ [2]. This can be seen within the work of Kenneth Ross, who’s sculptures confront themes lined with misogynistic tendencies, racism, and sexual fantasies. In his address of racial prejudice, Ross presents two images of the ‘golliwog’; originally a children’s toy which later became a representation of racism throughout Western culture. Alongside this sits The Hands of God (2017), a cartoonish sculpture covered in tattoo-like symbols, hung by its neck and alluding to erotic asphyxiation. Alongside fellow works occupying the space, Fucked Either Way (2017) and Bukakke Angel (2017), Ross develops an enquiry into the semblance between sex and violence rampant throughout pornographic culture. According to Eleanor Heartney, pornographic images appear due to the fact they are inherently a part of us; ‘they burble up out of our repressed desires for extreme states of consciousness, for social transgression…and sexual expression’ [3]. Similarly, Susan Sontag suggests that pornography offers the only outlet to the human ‘appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness’ [4]. Through his challenging approach to such ulterior themes, Ross conveys a thought-provoking reflection on male sexual depravity.

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Installation view

Collectively, the works within The Vagaries and Misconceptions of the Modern Man present a nonconformist representation of current masculine culture. Drawing on the pornographic, the fetisiation of gym culture encapsulated through the desire for the idealised male body; and the politics of violence, the works within the exhibition traverse complexities of the everyday and phallocentric culture.

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The Hands of God (2017)

References:

[1] Hito Steyerl, The Wretch of The Screen, e-flux, p.171

[2] Jacqueline Rose, ‘Sexuality in the Field of Vision’ (1984), Documents of Contemporary Art: Sexuality, p.80

[3] Eleanor Heartney, ‘In Defence of Pornography: A Necessary Transgression’ (1988), Documents of Contemporary Art: Sexuality, p.149

[4] Sontag, Susan, ‘The Pornographic Imagination’, reprinted in Georges Bataille, Story of The Eye (1928)

 

Return to writing

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It has been a while since I have written on this blog and documented my experiences of an exhibition. Having completed my Masters in August and after graduating in November, I needed a break from reading and writing about art. Instead, I have been catching up on the books that have been sat on my bookshelf gathering dust throughout the past year. Through my readings  I have travelled through several eras and genres; reading Fitzgerald and Steinbeck classics, as well as more sombre books charting semi-autobiographical experiences of war, such as Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 (both of which I highly recommend). I have been enjoying the experience of being sat on a beach, at home, in the bath or in a coffee house, travelling through time and space and being lost in fictional words.

Taking time out of writing about art has been really important in the sense that it has allowed me to reflect on what I learnt during my Masters. Having completed it in a year, there was very much a frantic nature to the research and the learning.  There was so much to absorb at such a fast pace, that casting back and making notes at a more leisurely rate has been integral to furthering my understanding of what I learnt on the course and has allowed me to develop my research interests beyond an institutional framework.

Despite a quiet period on the blog and a sabbatical from my writing practice, that is not to say I have neglected art entirely. I have been writing art reviews for The Wee Review, a platform which provides reviews and opinions on performing arts across Scotland. I have also continued to visit exhibitions in Edinburgh and travelled down to Newcastle twice since September, most recently in the past week. I was fortunate enough to visit Newcastle at a time where every space was brimming with art; BALTIC had a show on every floor, Side Gallery had some fantastic documentary photography, The Laing Art Gallery had its beautiful permanent collection as well as Stephen Scully and David Bomberg (more on the latter in a later post). BALTIC never ceases to amaze, but one of the most prominent and influential shows of the trip was a visit to Vane Gallery; which I will reflect on in a separate post once I have gathered my thoughts and frantic notes more coherently together!

 

Antoni Gaudi

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Architecture is a field I know very little about, mainly due to the fact I instead dedicate my time to art. I do however greatly enjoy visually absorbing the architecture of a city – one of the reasons I love living in Edinburgh so much! Everywhere you look there is an interesting element within the urban landscape. Whether it’s squatted gargoyles and intricate statues, or William Henry Playfair’s beautiful neo-classical designs; it’s an incredibly visual city. The same can be said for many of the others I have visited. Oman in the Middle East and various parts of India – both are incredibly unique with their architectural shapes, religious buildings and mosaic patterns. I spent several years in Oman, so it was lovely visiting Whitechapel in London a few months ago; as amid the city high-rises was a sprouting mosque – absolutely beautiful and such an interesting contrast to the rest of the city’s architecture.

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Seeing the work of architect Antoni Gaudi has long since been a dream of mine, and was one of the main motives for my recent trip to Barcelona. His famous works include the Guell park, the Guell house and of course, the Sagrada Familia – all of which fall within the design umbrella of Catalan Modernism. Highly embellished and brightly coloured, even for the architectural novice like myself they are a sight to behold. Drawing on both organic and Gothic influences, Gaudi’s work is a unique blend.

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Without his friend and patron, the entrepreneur Eusebi Güell i Bacigalupi’s support, many of Gaudi’s works would not have been realised. Gaudi in fact designed the crypt for the Guel family; a church which encompassed all elements of Gaudi’s experimental design techniques. This I did not see on my visit given our time limitations, however it is a site i will bear in mind for my return to Barcelona.

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Public/Private

 

20213861_288816651524137_2451059444084113408_nMy recent research is forcing me to think a lot about technology and its affects – it’s incredibly interesting, as it’s full of contradictions. On the one hand, technology brings us closer together; we can communicate instantly with anyone on a global scale and expect a reply within hours, if not minutes. We can conduct long distance relationships more easily, with the support of Skype and WhatsApp. We can even call our friend who’s running late to check how much longer they’ll be! Yet, in a sense, we are also distancing ourselves from one another. People can be sat together at dinner in a restaurant, not speaking for some time, but instead with the attention on their phones. The demands of cyberspace, have in some social situations come to outweigh the demands of reality. Our need to document our private lives online, again in some incidents takes precedence over simply enjoying the moment.

Considering this in relation to Hannah Arendt’s reflections  has been interesting. Her book, The Human Condition, was published in 1958 and reflects on human behaviours throughout Western history. An extract I found particularly poignant:

To live an entirely private life means about all to be deprived of things essential to a truly human life: to be deprived of the reality that comes from being seen and heard by others’ p.58

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Is our impulse to connect, be seen and heard virtually, simply an expression of our most basic human desire? Throughout Arendt’s discussion, she delves deep into the histories of public and private life; the public and private domain, as well as private ownership and how these entities affect our modes of thought. Through this she asks why ‘it has always been the bodily part of human existence that needed to be hidden in privacy, all things connected with the necessity of the life process itself’? (p.72) Why is it that activities such as breastfeeding one’s child, a vital component to life, are taboo? Is our impulsive need to document life in the digital era simply a component to moving beyond such taboos?

As more and more of our lives are uploaded online, our private spheres are rapidly diminishing. What was historically hidden, chores and hidden labour of  the domestic – have now come to light. People proudly wear an apron and washing up gloves as they smile for the camera, the ironing is laid out, washing up bubbles fill our phone screens as we scroll. Is our need to share more than simply a demonstration of production? Are we in fact, embracing life and human instinct; throwing away outdated notions of what is deemed publicly acceptable?

#today’swashingcombo

#windowcleaning

#queenofclean

Reflections on recent reading

22/07/17

Last week I participated in Collective Gallery’s annual Summer School, which was an incredibly rich learning experience. Not only given the range of speakers in discussion, but also due to the mix of participants who created an interesting and dynamic workshop environment. It was a great week to ease me back into thinking critically following my holiday in Spain. Collective are a contemporary visual arts organisation in Edinburgh which support new and emerging artists who are at a pivotal point in their career. Collective Gallery employ collaborative working methods, often producing new commissions for exhibitions. The Summer School they hosted last week had a selection of speakers and given her relevance to my current dissertation research, most notable to me was Angela McRobbie; a feminist cultural theorist and Professor at Goldsmiths. In her workshop, themes discussed included the gender of Post-Fordism [1], the artist as human capital, neoliberal enterprise, precarious labour and project-based work. Through my dissertation, I have exploring ideas of labour uncertainty and precarity, paying close attention to the temporal dimensions of these facets.

In contemporary society and within the economic framework, work and leisure boundaries are blurring. Work no longer sits exclusively within the 9-5pm paradigm, but instead all forms of slippages occur, most noticeably through technological communication in the form of Google calendar notifications and constant email exchange. We have become increasingly programmed to think not only in physical, but also in virtual time. As well as trying to balance work, domestic and social life, we are now forced into constant interconnectivity and network awareness. How many Facebook messages require replies? Have you checked the latest uploads from your friend’s holiday? Have you replied to their tag of you in a funny video? Technology is putting an increasing amount of demand on our lives – to the point that it is beginning to massively affect our sleeping patterns as well as our waking hours. According to Jonathan Crary, there are individuals these days who wake themselves up in the middle of the night for the sole purpose of checking their phones. Even in the sanctity of sleep therefore, we are still switched on to working life. There is no escape. We are no longer certain of when we are or are not working.

This is particularly evident in the creative industries, a field awash with neoliberal enterprise in the form of blogs and Etsy shops. Within the creative economy, working is increasingly flexible, freelance, uncertain and project-based, with little protection or welfare for workers. Angela McRobbie charts this in her book, Be Creative; a study examining the creative economy in the post-Blair years. In her discussion she also proposes ‘project-based’ models for future work, which are more considerate of such precarious labour. Further to this, I have also been reading Isabell Lorey’s State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, a very interesting and comprehensive read which draws primarily on Michel Foucault’s notions of biopolitics [2]. Throughout her analysis Lorey examines various dimensions of precarious labour, paying close attention to ideas of protection and inequality.

Tying these ideas to the work of the performance collective Eastern Surf [3] who I am studying for my dissertation has been very interesting and helpful. Through explorations of performance works such as ‘ilovemyjob‘, which examines the boundaries of working life, paying close attention to the domestic realm in which ‘hidden’ labour is carried out, I have been able to greatly refine my ideas from my broader readings (listed at the end of this post) and apply them within an artistic context.

**

[1] Post-Fordism is the theory that modern industrial production should change from the large-scale mass-production methods pioneered by Henry Ford towards the use of small flexible manufacturing units.

[2] Biopolitics can be understood as a political rationality which takes the administration of life and populations as its subject. According to Foucault: ‘[A] power that exerts a positive influence on life, that endeavours to administer, optimize, and multiply it, subjecting it to precise controls and comprehensive regulations.’ (Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1, 1976)

[3] See: http://easternsurf.net 

Recent reading:

Be Creative, Angela McRobbie, 2016

State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious, Isabell Lorey, 2015

24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary, 2013

Graffiti Diary, Madrid & Barcelona 2017

Recently I went on holiday to Madrid and Barcelona. What has developed into a natural impulse for me is documenting the graffiti in foreign cities. I never realised how much I liked graffiti until I went through photos on my camera and phone, only to find I am slowly gathering a personal archive of street art. I was in Berlin last summer and absolutely fell in love with the street art there, with the streets and pavements filled with vibrant colour and beautiful art. A lot of people have mixed feelings about graffiti; some thing it is defacing the urban landscape, others think it brings life to the streets. I am of the latter opinion, as I believe creativity should flourish in the most unexpected places. I particularly love chalked graffiti on the pavement, as the transience adds a melancholy to the experience of viewing. I also feel art is an integral part of life, so what better way for it to be integrated into our lives than through the streets?

Since reading John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing‘ (2008) a couple of years ago, I have become an advocate for what he terms the ‘visual essay’. Dispersed throughout the essays in this book are images collected and formulated into essays themselves. Devoid of text, yet united thematically, the visual essays force you to look and think for yourself. They allow you to reflect on the content of Berger’s essay and then apply visuals to his discussion. I find this way of looking and reading incredibly inspiring, so below is my visual essay of graffiti found whilst in Madrid and Barcelona.

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Quote Extracts

16/06/17

I find myself developing a magpie tendency whenever I see a good quote. Whether it’s for personal or academic use, I have a compulsion to document and accumulate them. I always remember my old art teacher having a book of quotes that inspired him. He was a fantastic man, full of energy; who still wore a waistcoat with a pocket watch. I should probably be more religious with my quote gathering and compile them all in one place, as they are currently haphazardly scattered across various notebooks, sticky notes, old receipts and train tickets. Anything I can write on in that moment, I will use to scribble notes. At least I always have a surplus of pens on me as being pen-less is my worst nightmare given I am such an avid note taker.

Although most of the time they are gathered for personal reflection, these are some I thought I would share…

‘To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world and at the same time to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.’

– M. Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, (1982), p.15

This I felt was a very poignant quote; as it is both at once filled with promise and hope, whilst simultaneously filled with tragedy and sadness. It signifies the disrupted and chaotic equilibrium of life. It exposes both the beauty and virtue of humans, whilst also displaying our destructive and careless nature. I think it is also very beautifully written; the more I read the more I am refining and realising my reading taste. I really do love visual language which drips with life. Along with my new found love for Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s writings, I have come across another writer  whose texts are truly brilliant. Although he’s an urban geographer in practice, which might appear a boring working title to some, or a tedious field to others, David Harvey is in fact one of the best writers I have come across in a while. His grasp of literature and his ability to convey and discuss his ideas in an engaging manner is enticing. Ignoring for a moment his staggeringly accurate and perceptive analysis of capitalist culture – he coined the term ‘time-space compression’, which discusses the shrinking of temporal and geographical distances as a result of technological and communication advances, see image below – his writing in itself is beautiful and full-bodied, like a good red wine.

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A quote of his I discovered recently that struck me:

‘Capital is a process and not a thing. It is a process of reproduction of social life through commodity production, in which all of us in the advanced capitalist world are heavily implicated…The process masks and fetishises, achieves growth through creative destruction, creates new wants and needs, exploits the capacity for human labour and desire, transforms spaces, and speeds up the space of life.’ 

– D. Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, (1989), p.343

Berardi

12/06/17

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I have been reading a lot of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi recently. He is an Italian Marxist theorist and activist in the autonomist tradition, who is widely published.  One of his most famous works is The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy (2009). He has also written extensively on Felix Guattari, ideas of capital and acceleration, society, the future, the worker and a variety of other dense topics. Berardi is perhaps my new favourite writer – or, given I prefer not to categorise into mere favourite divides, it’s probably more accurate to say he is a new favourite of mine.

His name kept cropping up in multiple bibliographies I was skimming and then I found a fantastic article by him on e-flux which could not be more relevant to my current research. The article is title ‘Time, Acceleration and Violence’ and it opens with this:

What do you store in a bank? You store time. But is the money that is stored in the bank my past time—the time that I have spent in the past? Or does this money give me the possibility of buying a future?’

– Berardi, e-flux journal #27, Sept. 2011

Out of all the articles I have ever read, this one has really stuck in my mind and left a lasting impression on me. I keep thinking about it and experiences or news articles I come across remind me of it too. For me, a Berardi read is always incredibly thought-provoking and at times, slightly unsettling. This read is one of those interesting yet unnerving ones. The article is a discussion of capitalism’s integration into our daily lives, into our cores. It talks about time in relation to the philosopher Henri Bergson; his ideas of duration versus modern days of perception. It discusses the Futurists and their war mongering attitude, Marx, war, competition, money, production, surplus. Its contents stick in your mind for days.

Why it was so prevalent to me?

Firstly, because reading about time is always a prevalent experience. Mainly because it forces you into an awareness of your own mortality. Yet this article goes further, as it links biological time to technological time and the time of capital. A comparison between the two is of course disturbing, as the biological can never compete with the economic. Particularly not in the digital age, where everything is immaterial and carried out online.

That was not the only disturbing element however. Extracts in discussion of the Futurists  were perhaps the most worrying given their accurate analysis:

Also in 1977, “competition” became the crucial word for the economy, whose project was to submit human relationships to the singular imperative of competition. The term itself became naturalized to the point where saying “competition” was like saying “work.” But competition is not the same as work. Competition is like crime, like violence, like murder, like rape. Competition equals war. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari say that fascism is “when a war machine is installed in each hole, in every niche.” And I would say that an economic regime based on competition is fascism perfected. But how does this violence arrive in the economic sphere?’

– Berardi, e-flux journal #27, Sept. 2011

Competition equals war. 

Think about that in relation to history. Think about that in relation to 2003; when the US first entered Iraq, claiming it was a moral act of defence and liberation. Yet capital was in fact the dark motive at heart. When I say the article is disturbing, I am not disturbed by the article itself, as it is merely a commentary exposing ideas and observations. It is the observations which disturb and unsettle me, particularly in wake of the current political and economic climate, both of which are fraught with uncertainty.

Recommended reading:

Berardi, e-flux journal #27, Sept. 2011