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Identity

For Artist Chantal Joffe, Mothers and Models Are Equally Awkward and Beautiful

In a new show opening in London this week, the British painter applies her signature bright colors and deft sense of character to subjects that range from her family to her favorite poets.
January 22, 2016, 7:35pm
"Blonde Girl Sitting on a Picnic Table," 2007, oil on board. All images courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London

With her bold ability to catch beauty off guard and fix it, slapdash, in paint, the English artist Chantal Joffe is one of the most powerful figurative painters working today. Her subjects—mostly women—literally drip with life. Joffe developed her iconography early on and has stuck with it; her commitment to the challenges of painting keeps each picture resolutely fresh. The British artist gleans images from fashion magazines, snapshots of family and friends, and most recently from biographies of her favorite poets, but her fluid handling of paint and the directness of her style make Joffe's paintings feel more vital than a photograph. Joffe begins working immediately with the brush on blank canvas or board, and distortions that occur in scale or form seem to capture the psychological, bringing the body heavily into being. In these pictures, emotional and physical perception collapse into one plan

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Joffe's women can be bold and demure at once, looking out at the viewer with fierce eyes while holding self-conscious or awkward poses. Their briskly rendered bodies revel in color and imperfection. Joffe's brushwork is confident and unfussy, yet you sense commitment to every mark. The artist's oeuvre adds up to a celebration of the female form grounded in individuality. In advance of her new show at London's Victoria Miro gallery, opening this week, we talked with Joffe about how motherhood affected her work, what it's like to paint people you know (and people whose poetry you've read), and the beauty discovered by simply looking hard enough.

"Grasshopper," 2009, oil on board

BROADLY: Your work shifted after the birth of your first child, from paintings of fashion models to paintings of family and friends—particularly of you and your daughter. How did motherhood inform your work?
Chantal Joffe: I've always painted my family and used magazines as a source. I don't really differentiate between the two, but having my daughter meant I painted more self-portraits and pictures of her. I think it was a way of understanding our relationship. I always paint what is closest to me, both literally and emotionally. I had always loved the paintings of pregnant women and mothers and children by Alice Neel and Paula Modersohn-Becker.

Does the source of an image affect your handling of the subject? If you pull something from a fashion magazine or porn, does it make you approach the work differently?
I think I am aware of the source at first, but then quite quickly I forget about it.

"Self-Portrait with Esme," 2009, oil on linen

You were at the Royal College of Art in the 90s, a time fraught with discussion about the death of painting. What was it like to be a painter then?
I loved being at the Royal College—we were all so happy to be there. It felt like a very innocent time, we all wanted to talk about was painting, about the new painters—Marlene Dumas, Luc Tuymans, and Peter Doig, and the old ones, from Philip Guston to El Greco. We were all experimenting with collage and photography and different ways of painting, influencing each other a lot and reading people like Slavoj Žižek and Blanchot. It was a great time to be a student.

You struck upon your and your imagery fairly early on—how do you keep it fresh years later?
I always feel like I am just beginning, that I could end up anywhere. There isn't any point otherwise.

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Why do you think you nearly exclusively paint women?
I'm still not really sure. Maybe it's easier for me to imagine how they think.

"Brocade Dress," 2015, oil on board

What is painting's biggest challenge for you?
It's the hardest thing to do.

Is there a difference between working from a photograph you found to working from a photograph you took yourself?
No. I don't care if I took them or someone else did.

Does your relationship to the work change if you are painting a person you know?
If I know the person, I am conscious of their sense of themselves. I don't want to hurt their feelings, but after I start painting I usually forget to care. I start finding them beautiful, even if it's rolls of fat or the size of their nose.

"Moll with Cat," 2014, oil on canvas

One of the principal lures and challenges of oil paint is that it's notoriously difficult to control. What is your relationship to control in your work?
I think its really important to have control—no matter how involved you are in a painting, you have to keep the color clean, the brushes, the palette, not let it go muddy. It's about finding a balance between the excitement and the control.

Describe a typical studio day for me.
I usually get in to the studio around 8:30 AM. I like to be in every day, all day, if I can, even if I spend the day staring into space. It's hard to get any momentum without that. Other than that I don't have a routine, it's just important to be there.

"Brunette in Stripes," 2015, oil on board

What has been most essential to your life as an artist?
The ability to be on my own a lot has been invaluable. I don't think it's possible without that.

Your new exhibition at Victoria Miro this week includes paintings of poets made from photographs in their biographies. What's your personal connection to this subject?
I have been interested in the poetry of Sexton, Plath, and Lowell since I was a student. Their often chaotic, troubled lives are also the subject of their poems, so it is hard to know where one thing ends and the other begins. I wanted to try and understand them better; I had begun to feel almost as if I knew them through reading about them and reading their work. The paintings are my way of thinking my way into their lives.