The inevitable self-consciousness of tender teenage years is conjured in Herb at Sixteen, a portrait of a friend's son, as well as the vulnerability of painting and being painted.
I first met Chantal Joffe while it was still winter in London. She was preparing for her solo exhibition at the Lowry in Salford, Personal Feeling Is the Main Thing. Invited up to her high-ceilinged studio, where little plug-in radiators kept us warm, our conversation was expansive and sprawling. We jumped rapidly to topics far beyond the art world, touching upon everything from the pleasures of train travel to the tender pains of teenagehood. I was surprised to find her so unguarded, so openly willing to share ideas, memories and observations, and I responded in kind. I became fully immersed in her world, surrounded by discarded paint tubes and canvases at various stages of completion. I’ve long admired Joffe’s deeply personal painting; many show herself and her daughter, Esme, in everyday moments that are as intimate as they are universal.
One painting sat opposite me on the floor as we spoke, leaning lazily against the wall, which stood out amidst the many figures and faces lining the large, light-filled room. A dark-haired boy looks straight ahead, his shoulders subtly raised, as if posing for a portrait has hunched them very slightly. He is fully alert, arms held a little away from the body, tense and yet imbued with the thrill of a new experience. After all, he has agreed to sit for Joffe and he is topless. Here is the compassionate honesty that characterizes Joffe’s mark-making, full with the psychological undercurrents to be found when looking—really looking—at another person. I wonder about his aspirations, his desires and his doubts. He is bare and yet concealed, with skin showing but eyes watchful. He guards his thoughts closely, I feel. A mauve shadow falls from his face across his neck and shoulder, a darker tone alongside the paler chest and arms, and he appears at once intensely present and momentarily absent from the picture.
Image: Chantal Joffe, Herb at Sixteen, 2018