Jonathan Glasbrook reviews The Rivalry of Flowers, the latest volume of reproductions from celebrated Welsh artist Shani Rhys James, including floral still lifes and emotional constructs.
As well as providing the perfect opportunity for a celebration, the imminent arrival of a sixtieth birthday usually offers the chance for a timely period of reflection and reappraisal. Whilst many others may traditionally look forward to enjoying the perks and added dispensations of retirement, Shani Rhys James: The Rivalry of Flowers (Seren, 2013), offers little evidence to suggest that one of Wales’ most beloved cultural imports will be taking up her entitlement to free travel on the nation’s bus network anytime soon.
Featuring over fifty, mostly large, single page reproductions of Rhys James’ work, Seren’s latest foray into the world of contemporary Welsh art focuses initially on the painter’s most recent efforts before then casting a retrospective eye over her output since the last significant monograph to feature her work, The Black Cot (Gomer) was released in 2004. Part catalogue for her latest endeavours (at the time of publication Rhys James had concurrent shows running in both Cardiff and London), this latest volume also reprises much of the work that featured in several of her earlier exhibitions, most notably, Two Ateliers (2009) and Floribunda (2012).
Notwithstanding her increasing number of sorties into the world of the floral still life, now, as then, Rhys James’ primary focus in The Rivalry of Flowers remains herself, albeit as a vehicle for a range of implied narratives and emotional constructs. Whereas in the more recent past the artist’s heavily impastoed features were often to be found glaring out from an incandescent and closely cropped canvas or from within the artfully contrived bricolage of her west Wales home, her latest offerings are both pared down and contemplative in comparison to the more uninhibited work of old. Frequently large in scale, the artist has placed herself against a backdrop of florid printed wallpapers of a kind once described by the American proto-feminist author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman as, ‘One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.’ Taken from her 1892 short story, The Yellow Wallpaper, a title that one of the artist’s new paintings also shares, this latest body of work references the Rhys James’ arrival in Britain from Australia during the particularly harsh winter of 1962 and variously addresses the relationship between mother and daughter as well as serendipitously echoing Gilman’s own tale by drawing attention to the claustrophobic nature of both kinship and connubiality.
An early admirer of Rhys James’ work since his days adjudicating on the now defunct Hunting Observer Art Award (a prize the artist won in 1993), William Packer, erstwhile art critic of The Financial Times and himself a contemplative painter of some repute, currently holds up Rhys James as, ‘one of the most remarkable painters we have.’ Championing her cause in his brief but enthusiastic foreword, Packer is at pains to explain that Rhys James’ reputation as an artist beyond Wales has suffered in part due to the inability of curators and museum directors alike to easily categorize her output. Pre-eminent in her position as a practitioner in that currently most unfashionable of mediums, oil paint, he also believes that her ongoing enthusiasm for figuration and, to a lesser degree, her gender have all worked against her broader critical acceptance within the wider British art establishment.
Recently acclaimed for her debut novel, The Rice Paper Diaries, former editor of the New Welsh Review, Francesca Rhydderch uses the book’s second section to engage Rhys James in conversation and to explore elements of the artist’s life and career to date including her upbringing and her reunion with her father after a period of thirty-five years, as well as her career as a painter despite her also being drawn towards both acting and writing at various times during her adolescence. Initially cared for by her mother, an actress, and her stepfather, an artist and part-time impresario, Rhys James would often take refuge in a world of drawing during periods of parental absence in both Melbourne and later in London. Encouraged by her mother from an early age to explore all forms of culture, it would seem that there was a certain air of inevitability that Rhys James would become involved in one form of creative pursuit or another.
As a name already familiar to art lovers in Wales through his two volumes on Harry Holland as well as his earlier essay in The Black Cot, the veteran art historian, Edward Lucie Smith has already made a valuable contribution to our understanding of Rhys James’ oeuvre. It is perhaps then somewhat disappointing that, rather than offering us a fresh perspective on her latest efforts, Lucie Smith has merely reiterated much of what he had to say in 2004. Had his earlier commentary appeared in some difficult to obtain or limited edition publication produced by either Martin Tinney or Connaught Brown, her respective dealers in Cardiff and London, then such an approach may well have appeared understandable but, as The Black Cot is still readily available to anyone looking to broaden his or her understanding of the painter’s work, it is a source of some frustration that the commission was not perhaps given to somebody with something more original to say.
This mild criticism notwithstanding, for anyone that has previously felt disappointed by some of Seren’s earlier incursions into the province of Welsh art history, this latest offering goes some way to rectify any previous disillusionment. Devoid of the numerous typographical errors and poor quality colour reproductions associated with some of their back catalogue, this is an altogether more handsome offering. Clothed within a softly tactile, matt laminated dust jacket and featuring internal stitching and an airy layout, Shani Rhys James: The Rivalry of Flowers, offers the promise of better things to come from Wales’ most prolific publisher of art books.
For a nation that in recent times seems to hold dear those painters that have embraced expressionist tendencies whatever their starting point, Sir Kyffin aside – Will Roberts, Peter Prendergast and Kevin Sinnott also immediately spring to mind – Shani Rhys James finds herself in good company. The subject of two monographs within the space of nine years, it would appear that Rhys James has already done enough to secure for herself a niche in the pantheon of Welsh painters. Newly published to coincide with her own upcoming personal landmark, far from implying as some might suppose any diminution in the artist’s creative faculties, there is a very real danger that, on the testimony of her latest work, Rhys James might inadvertently find herself a poster-girl for those politicians and plutocrats intent on raising still further the age of retirement in their quest for that elusive financial equilibrium of which we hear so much.
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Jonathan Glasbrook is a contributor to Wales Arts Review.