New Paintings by Shani Rhys James


Martin Tinney Gallery, St. Andrews Crescent, Cardiff


Until Bedwyr Williams represents Wales in the Venice Biennale next month, you can’t get a more high profile artist in Wales at the moment, or one who is so consistently strong. But I can’t help point out the obvious here, which is that one of the reasons that Shani’s portrait work is of such a high quality is because she almost always depicts the same figure, which she seems to have based on herself.

You might have seen her before at the contemporary art wing of National Museum Cardiff, where ‘Black Cot & Latex Glove‘ took pride of place, before Artes Mundi 5 displaced it, on the far wall as you walked in. If you did, then you would have felt something similar to déjà vu when viewing one of the walls in the Martin Tinney Gallery, as the same quasi-gollumistic figure stares back at you for five consecutive large portraits. Not that this is SRJ’s fault, it being the gallery’s responsibility to hang the show as they please – but it does feel a bit like an overkill in such a constricted space.

The recurring self portrait theme that Shani Rhys James is famous for is much better done with ‘Yellow Wallpaper I’, which has the main wall to itself at the back of the gallery. On this canvas, it is hard to tell where the flowers in the vase start and the flowers on the wallpaper end. Bringing to mind Charlotte Perkins’s classic short story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (hence the title of the piece, I presume), which has been a mainstay on the English Literature curriculum GCSE for the past few years, the bright yellow background also becomes the foreground, blurring in the figure to make her appear somewhere between them. You are never quite sure if she is just a part of the general ambience or if she could ever have her own dedicated space. It brings to mind Matisse’s ‘Harmony in Red‘, dealing with the same abstract focal point and the servitude of the woman and the domination of colour.

Shani says much the same herself. ‘There is something dark and wild and crazy about flowers,’ she is quoted as saying. ‘Yet in wallpaper designs they are controlled in a pattern and prettified. In our culture women are also prettified – she is part of the floral background, part of the furniture in a way. She has become just another decorative interior thing.’ It is by far the best picture in the whole show. If you can ignore the awkwardly painted left hand in the corner and instead concentrate on the space between the eyes, you will understand why it was one of the pieces that was sold before the opening night.

Indeed, it is this range of raw human emotion that sets her apart. In ‘Cards Close to Her Chest’, a teapot in the foreground is flanked by two figures, their hands on the table, eyeing each other while the dominating black background envelopes everything, giving a sinister and claustrophobic air to proceedings. How the two figures might react to each other over the inanimate object is up to you to decide, but the conversation their eyes are having reminds me of an old fashioned Western quick draw.

And it is another picture of two figures that captured my attention more than anything else. ‘Bedsit 1’ is a small charcoal drawing of two people staring out of the paper, devoid of the figure SRJ normally paints into her expressionist scenes. But the same domineering inanimate object is there, in the form of a huge chandelier, towering above the smaller figure and seemingly brushing the larger figure aside.

Maybe it’s because she has two shows on at the same time, but what this adds up to is that it all does feel a bit samey. Normally this would not be worth being concerned about – to see a progression of issues relevant to the artist is quite an intriguing and eye-opening experience. However, I find that there is something quite predictable in the artist at the zenith of their career who does the same thing over and over again and still expects us to pay attention.


You can see more of Shani Rhys James’s paintings from this show by clicking here