In Her Hands, an exhibition of three female ‘painters’ painters’. Martha Diamond, Chantal Joffe, and Nicole Wittenberg

mage: Chantal Joffe, Ishbel in Black, 2018, oil on canvas, 72.05 x 48.03 inches (183 x 122 cm). © Chantal Joffe. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.
Chantal Joffe, Ishbel in Black, 2018, oil on canvas, 72.05 x 48.03 inches (183 x 122 cm).
© Chantal Joffe. Courtesy of the artist and Victoria Miro, London/Venice.

Skarstedt is to present In Her Hands, an exhibition of three female ‘painters’ painters’. Martha Diamond, Chantal Joffe, and Nicole Wittenberg, representing roughly three generations, all foreground the primacy of painterly technique and direct observation. Each embrace and redefine, in her own distinct manner, the broad tradition of realism, and its place in the spectrum of contemporary art. Their painting is not traditional – it is confident, forward-looking and of our contemporary moment.

Realism is an act of translation, the visible world translated into a system of marks made at the end of a brush. It is also interpretive; one has a point of view, decides what’s important, what to leave out. Interpretation and translation – the first stations on the road to a style. There is what the eye sees, then there is what the hand can do.

These three artists paint what they see, and what can be painted. They seek out subjects that offer opportunities for creating form; buildings, with their grids of windows; faces and bodies, with their interlocking planes and rhythms; sea and land-scapes, with the movements of water and of light on water, as well as trees and plant forms, with their sensuous shapes and rich patterns of light and dark. Paint loves structure, seeks it out, makes a partnership with it. The brush locks onto the places where planes meet, light against dark, and the alternation of tonal values, with precisely determined intervals, creates a sense of pictorial form. Those are the givens of representational painting. An individual style built out of these givens, and is a matter of taste, temperament, and experience.

Martha Diamond, a native New Yorker and habitué of the downtown poetry scene, now in her early 70s, is one of the most convincing pictorial revivalists working today. Diamond paints cityscapes. Her subject is the drama of tall buildings, their grids of windows, and the cloud-scapes that play out in the interstitial spaces between buildings. Sometimes her point of view is from the ground, looking up at the tops of buildings as they pierce the sky; in other paintings, the point of view hovers somewhere between the 15th and 20th floors.

Diamond’s paintings are tall, and her brushstrokes are wide, fast, and self-assured. Her images are distilled and concise – she gives us the essence. Her surfaces are fully energized; the architectural structures are a framework on which to make a decisive, sometimes slashing marks with the brush. Her manner of painting requires precision and nerve. Her colours are no-nonsense. Diamond has that rare thing: controlled spontaneity. Her full-arm brush marks coalesce into a strong image, expressed with a minimum of fuss and maximum of drama.

Chantal Joffe lives and works in London. She is a portraitist. Her subjects are herself, her family, and people she knows well. Her manner of painting is direct and un-fussy. Her paint is not tortured. On the contrary, the paint is very fluid; she works it fast and lets it stand. Joffe does not rely on outlines – she makes ‘open’ paintings, the forms interlocking as broad swaths of paint with a minimum of linear embellishments. The point of view in her paintings is intimate; in a way, that is her very subject – the intimacy of family life, of friends, the daily-ness of life. She paints hairstyles and clothes and a few errant chest hairs with an eye both sympathetic and objective. Her work has something of the diaristic; several paintings revisit the same subject on different days, registering subtle shifts of mood and small adjustments of pose and inflexion.

Joffe works in a variety of formats; most of the paintings here are of a smaller scale, and they foreground the immediacy of her technique, its essential fearlessness. There is a get it down quick, ‘grab-and-go’ quality to some of her portraits. The fact that they look ‘fast’ belies how acutely observed they are. Joffe’s work is part of an especially English tradition, the social portrait – people who may know each other or whom we feel we may know.

Nicole Wittenberg is the youngest artist of the three. Like many in her generation, she began her career with paintings inspired by photographic sources. In the past two years, her methodology has shifted to drawing and painting from direct observation. The contract between sitter and painter was found to contain new life after all. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. As a sophisticated, intellectually acute artist, Wittenberg’s sensibility encompasses photography, cinema, and fashion, as well as a broad swath of art history. Her work is both self-reflexive and conveys the immediacy of intense visual experience. She is a ‘plein air’ painter for today.

In the past year, her primary subject has been nature, specifically bodies of water, seen both from the vantage point of dry land, and also the water observed from a boat. Water is a notoriously difficult subject. First of all, water moves is never still. And it is reflective – sunlight changes it, as does the sky. Wittenberg handles all these layers of difficulty with naturalness and aplomb.

The paintings shown here were completed from pastel sketches made while Wittenberg was visiting islands in the Bahamas and also in Greece. (Her luminous pastels are shown on the Gallery’s third-floor viewing room.) The quality of her painting is extremely open; forms are not contained, their energy spreads outward. These pictures were painted for the most part on the floor, wet into wet. Wittenberg eschews outlining, but occasionally a passage of trees or other flora will be left as a barely delineated map of lines, the effect of which is to direct our attention to the sun, to the temperature and time of the day.

In Windermere 3, 2019, we see, as if all at once, an expanse of water glimpsed through an opening in the vegetation, with lengths of turquoise, ultramarine, and white indicating the point where the more tranquil water of a cove meets the open sea. The painting compresses the drama of fast, bright clouds against a darkening sky, the complex polyrhythmic undulations of sunlight on waves, the intense lights and darks of plant forms, and the sandy shore, now become a latticework of brushstrokes that get bigger and looser at the painting’s bottom edge. It all locks together; one feels the specificity of right here, right now. Wittenberg is an especially inventive colourist. Somewhat counter-intuitively, her water scenes are painted on intense yellow grounds; her beach scenes with figures painted on hot pink grounds that merge with skin tones and the colours of shadows on sand.

These three painters, each in their own way, devoted to their own subjects, do not make outer-directed, topical, or otherwise sensationalist or attention-seeking art. They are not trying to fit into any particular cannon. Their work is both fast and slow; their art is radical insofar as it affirms the notion of an artist’s practice as an individual and personal process, and the validity of making artistic choices that are tested against one’s own experience.

Martha Diamond, Chantal Joffe, and Nicole Wittenberg
Curated by David Salle January 9th – February 1st, 2020 Skarstedt 79th Street
Opening Reception Thursday, January 9th 6-8PM.

About Mark Westall

Mark Westall is the Founder and Editor of FAD magazine, ' A curation of the world’s most interesting culture' [PLUS] Art of Conversation: A tri-annual 'no news paper'