Saturday, April 13, 2013

Joe Coffey's Chasing Peacocks reviewed by Yvonne Owens

Just inside the door of Winchester Galleries, Joe Coffey’s figurative profile portrait, titled ‘Tea Party’ (oil on canvas, 50 ½” X 45 1/2 “), reveals a subject deep in thought. His red beard picks up the highlights burnishing the underside of the brim of his battered, but lustrously golden, straw hat. He leans over his pipe, about to take a draw, appearing to compose his thoughts and focus his spirit on an ineffable, inner experience. There is mystery – a profound delicacy and respect – in Coffey’s portrayal of this subject and his indefinable, ruminative relationship with the act of smoking. Coffey’s virtuosic rendering of the subject’s gloved hand reveals its form of folded fingers by means of a deceptively neutral and apparently ‘white’ medley of blues, peach tones, and dove grays. The coat of green oscillates among complimentary reds and golds. The glacial whites of the button-down collar and bow tie glint with prismatic pinks, emerald and burnt orange. clip_image002
Tea Party, Oil on canvas, 50 1/2 x 45 1/2 inches

As with an actual glacier, the shadows are discovered to harbor depths of icy blue. Against the warmth of the red-bearded face and golden, straw hat, what is cool and pristine appears all the more crystalline and snowy. Joe Coffey’s unique gift is that his congenitally very different apprehension of color – combined with his optically accurate grasp of color values and his convincingly veristic rendering of them – simultaneously disturbs, disrupts, awakens, and delights the eye of the beholder. Diagnosed as an unusual form of ‘color blindness,’ the results of such a specialized perception are, in fact, anything but ‘blind.’ It may simply be that his differently tuned eyes see more of the spectrum – its frequency vibrations, or ‘colors’ – than most.
Rendered in luminous flesh tones, ruddy with peach and apricot accents, and sensually convincing with tactile illusions of grainy surfaces and textured fabrics, this intimate portrait of a momentary, quotidian experience becomes somehow epic, heroic – rare. Color animates every surface, the planes of the face, and the weathered, leathery neck. The apparently neutral background actually pulses with subtle, complementary shadings – violet and apricot, greens and gold. The ground, like every surface and contour within the frame, is actually extremely active – somehow numinous with the potency of the next, as yet unrevealed, moment. This tension comprises the mystery of these works. Quietly intent, the seated subject is captured mid-gesture. His attitude, introspection and serene arrest – suspended on the brink of a thought, an inhalation, or an utterance – reveal an inward dynamism to mirror the outward pulsations of surface color. There is nothing static in this rendering.
Perhaps the largest piece in the show, weighing in at 80” X 60”, Coffey’s portrait titled “Rachel Berman” conveys an androgynous spirit and a formidable intellect. The elder artist portrayed here leans forward slightly in her chair, her upper torso projecting over her right hand, which clasps her crossed knees. She peers intently at the viewer, and – in a magical collapsing of time, venue, and occasion – at the artist in the act of portraying her. He is present in the moment represented in the form of his booted feet, crossed at the ankles, just entering into the frame from the bottom right, jutting into the portrait’s ‘universe’ like an ironic reminder that this, though prepossessingly ‘real,’ is just a representation – a very consciously created illusion. An artist’s cameo appearance and self-referencing within his work, tantamount to the self-inclusion within their works of Raphael or Hitchcock, the feet jut into the frame as if to say, “Despite the realistically lifelike effect of this image, it is actually a fabricated illusion of reality.” Coffey’s visual admission of craft paraphrases Magritte’s witty comment beneath his realistic image, asserting, “This is not a pipe.”
Rachel Berman, Oil on canvas, 80 x 60 inches
The pink frames of her John Lennon glasses offer one of the few clues as to the subject’s gender, belied by her jaunty man’s cap, her (many-hued but ostensibly taupe) man’s waistcoat, Oxford shirt, corduroy trousers, and work boots. This subject has the focused, piercing gaze of Quentin Crisp when facing a camera. There is an uncompromising, honest and perceptive intelligence evoked through the paint that is palpable. Dashes of vivid, ‘fire-engine’ red glimmer from the warm, buff trouser legs; pinks and peacock blues both animate and formally reveal the folds, puckers, bulges, valleys, depressions, and drapings of the ‘white’ shirt. The skin looks velvety and worn, befitting the age of the subject.
Besides human figures, Coffey’s show of intimate, gently penetrating, intensely alive portraits features animal subjects also. “Republic” (53” X 36”) is a slightly larger-than-life, heroic portrait of a horse – a bust portrayal where, once again, the subject leans slightly forward toward the viewer, with the sensitive, velveteen nose looming out of the frame as if expecting a pat or a treat. Here, as in many others among the animal portraits, Coffey has experimented with the background, ‘framing’ the picture borders with loose, gestural, graphic, black marks. The drawing involved is thus made visible, referred to and heralded with those bold, emotive brush strokes. A patterned, textured ground suggests dried, cracked mud in “Badlands, Gothic 2” (Acrylic on Canvas, 36” X 36”), where two inquisitive colts peer out at the audience from this evocation of a high, dry, desert plateau. This presents a piquant emotional effect; their glossy coats, like the skin surfaces of the human subjects, shimmer with kaleidoscopic yet natural-looking, complementary colors.
Badlands Gothic 2, Oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches
In “Untitled (Heifer, 30” X 30”), an ordinary cow that Coffey somehow manages to cause to appear mystical, floats upon a flat background of gentle pinks, grays, and taupe, the entire, deceptively ordinary tableau being filled with a dusky, rose light. The dog in the title piece, “Chasing Peacocks” (36” X 45”), looks at the viewer from close up. His big, Labrador head fills the lower, left foreground and dominates the compositional picture plane. The lustrous, expressive, canine eyes gaze out of the image with a tired and dubious expression, as if to say, “I really can’t be held responsible for any of this.” This may be in reference to the aggressive, wildly gesticulating antics of the small boy in princely riding gear, who waves his crop in the right background. The pair is pictured on a moor or prairie, with the low, charcoal grey sky glowering behind them threatening lightening, imminent rainfall or worse. There is threat, humor, warmth and ironic complicity with the viewer in this rendition of human and animal relations. (By and large, we the audience, for whom these shenanigans are staged, tend to sympathize with the dog.) A kind of fairy tale magic characterizing the narrative elements relate to the part of the quintessential fairy story where the animals start to talk. Though the presentation is ostensibly figurative, naturalistic, or even hyper-realistic, this work might be more properly approached as a kind of beguilingly Canadian, painterly ‘Magic Realism’ – what Robertson Davies might produce if he’d been a painter instead of a writer.
Chasing Peacocks, Oil on canvas, 36 x 45 inches
In the piece simply titled, ‘Mastiff’ (48” X 60”), the drama is all in the image. It presents a close-up confrontation with the powerful head and neck of a (very much bigger than life) mastiff. He or she hovers into our view against a flat, warm, white ground, with loose sketching revealed about the finished contours of the massive canine. As with other pieces in the show, this device serves to reveal the presence of the artist in the work – the crafting of the amazingly lifelike illusion of doggie proximity. This impressive creature seems ready to walk out of the frame of drawn gesture and form, perhaps to lick the viewer’s dwarfed face. (This impression will manifest as more or less disturbing depending on the viewer’s feeling about large dogs.)
Mastiff, Oil on canvas, 48 x 60 inches
One of the human portraits, ‘Queen’s Jester’ (36” X 48”), features another of Coffey’s masculine, seemingly inward focused subjects. This image depicts the upper torso of a hirsute young man in profile. He is nude to the waist, wearing only a knitted, woolen, Rasta-type chapeau, a pose that serves to display the crude, prison-style tattoos on his arms and chest. Graphic lines interrupt the warm white background and scarlet vivifies the shadows beneath his russet beard. Once again, if you squint your eyes to peer at this work, the colors and light values translate as entirely naturalistic and optically accurate.
Queen's Jester
Oil on canvas 48 x 36 inches
A frontal, nude torso is the subject of another riveting male portrait. (The subject is featured in four other paintings, in various poses, in a numbered suite.) The title, ‘When Max Richter met Walt Whitman # 1’ (36” X 44”), muses upon an impossible meeting, as the contemporary composer and the historic poet hail from different eras. The disjunctive tension between the title and the image – in this case, a quixotic literary/musical encounter and a darkly Romantic (in the Gothic sense), definitively brooding, Heathcliff-type figure.
When Max Richter met Walt Whitman #1, Oil on canvas, 34 1/2 x 45 ½”
Like the mildly confrontational, human subject of ‘Rachel Berman,’ the domestic, animal companions of ‘The Two Cats’ (30” X 40”) and ‘Mastiff,’ and many of the horses and others among the more pastoral subjects, this figure appears to dynamically approach the viewer. Seemingly about to walk out of the frame, the subject engages the audience with his eyes, transmitting a fierce, though mysterious intent and an elemental ardor. He is soulful, even a little somber, but he is manifestly present in his image. And – though mortified by a noir palette in shades of green, violet, and black – like every one of the shimmering nuances of color that delineate his form, he appears to vibrate, to breath with life.

Joe Coffey: Solo Exhibition, ‘Chasing Peacocks’
October 9th—27th, 2012, Winchester Galleries
Victoria, BC

Review by Yvonne Owens

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