Joe Coffey’s Facebook page touts his craft in self-effacing terms. This ‘artist guy’ works in oils, acrylics, graphite, and mixed media, so comes by his self-appointed, somewhat generalized page heading honestly.
Widely acclaimed for his graphic skills, he has won awards for his art, and has been featured in multiple group exhibitions and solo shows. Coffey has been working as a professional exhibiting artist for the past fifteen years, with galleries in Victoria, Vancouver, and Calgary. His works, including commissions, now feature in private collections across Canada, the USA, and England. He presently lives and works in Victoria, BC, and primarily creates large scale, technically stunning portraits of urban people and farmyard animals. Of these stirring and dramatic portrayals, he says, “All my subjects, whether animal or human, are merely actors – an ends to a means – to try and convey a moment that moves me in a personal way.”
The palette Coffey employs for his signal and evocative renderings is arrestingly idiosyncratic – brilliant with unexpected, yet apparently natural, hues. His gift for rendering a convincingly realistic representation of a person, domestic animal, or background landscape out of entirely unlikely pigments derives from the fact of his congenitally very different apprehension of color. This unique, perceptual attribute, combined with his optically accurate grasp of color values and his convincingly veristic rendering of them, produces images that simultaneously disturb, disrupt, awaken, and delight the eye of the beholder. Diagnosed as an unusual form of ‘colour blindness,’ in concert with an acute sensitivity to the psychological overtones (and undertones) conveyed by pure colour, 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, colors and tones, than most. One of Coffey’s human portraits, Queen’s Jester (91,44 x 121,9 cm), features a masculine, seemingly inward focused subject 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. If you squint your eyes to peer at this work, the colors and light values translate as entirely naturalistic and optically accurate.
In Coffey’s most recent solo show, at Winchester Galleries, the effect of saturated color in conveying the psychological impact, movement and gesture in a large, figural work was demonstrated to great advantage. The piece titled Tea Party (oil on canvas, 128,3 x 115,6 cm, 2012) 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.
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. Colour 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.
A great portion of this painter’s work rests in a wry, friendly, and funny irony. Trickster is an animus in Coffey’s work. Antic and fey, the irony often lies in the tension between the operatic (sometimes intentionally bathetic) title and the humble, farmyard identity of the animal subject(s). Love on a High Street (91,45 x 91,45 cm, 2012) reveals a full, frontal portrait of a winsome ewe, who regards the viewer over the top of her paddock.
She fixes the audience with her horizontal pupils, her many hued, black face framed in a fuzzy blaze of wool. The ground is warm mauve that vacillates between olive green shadows and rose. The pastoral beast gazes at us over the wooden slat of her pen, marked number “12,” her status as common, barnyard animal offset by the Romantic, roseate glow of the artist’s palette for this presentation, and the soft exaltation of lighting. Coffey’s earliest memories as an artist are of drawing and molding animals out of play dough; his interest in representational art has always been apparent and well supported. His mother was a talented artist, her brother was also a gifted artist, and his paternal grandfather painted landscapes. Coffey’s artistic choices in representing animal and human subjects grow out of his past. He grew up on a farm and, when he started to paint barnyard animals and human subjects from his day-to-day life, it was like going home.
From earliest childhood, Coffey’s first love has been drawing, so the graphic elements of each finished oil or acrylic painting tend to be visible. Coffey has typically 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. In the piece simply titled, Mastiff (48” X 60,” 2012), 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. This device is common to Coffey’s work; he brings the viewer into an intimate and visceral confrontation with his painterly subjects – whether human, canine, feline, equine, or bovine.
Coffey has been given twelve solo exhibitions since the year 2000, and has also been included in twenty-three group exhibitions during that time. In 2012, he was featured as solo artist in “Chasing Peacocks,” Winchester Galleries, Victoria. Coffey’s group exhibitions number thirty in the past fifteen years, including fundraisers like “Splash!” Arts Umbrella fundraiser (Vancouver, BC), and “Art for Life – Fine Art Auction” (Vancouver, BC).
Joe Coffey feels that it is a privilege to be an ‘artist guy.’ “I could not imagine doing anything else. It kind of becomes more about your identity than just the mechanics of working. It’s inside of you; being broke some of the time and living off peanut butter is well worth it….”
Winchester Galleries, Victoria