SHANI RHYS JAMES: TEA ON THE SOFA, BLOOD ON THE CARPET
Wolfson Gallery, Charleston, Firle
(1 February – 19 April 2020)
A comment pops up on Shani Rhys James’ Instagram feed from newforestmutha asking if “…the Charleston show will be repeated?” This was in reference to ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’, staged in the Wolfson Gallery adjacent to the Sussex farmhouse where Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant set up their home in 1916. By chance, I had mentioned to my daughter just the day before that I still regretted not writing about Shani Rhys James’ show almost a year ago. I also recall coming out of the exhibition and announcing to my companions that this was the best painting show of 2020. I was not joking. This was on 1st February, the opening day, less than five weeks into the New Year and the exhibition be prematurely curtailed just a few weeks later.
Later, in June, after the first lockdown and the closing or limited opening of galleries, I had indulged in writing a retrospective account of Carol Bove’s sculptures at David Zwirner from 2018. This provided a fascinating experience for writing about, and reminiscing, an experience I assumed had gone by and for breaking with the convention of reviewing exhibitions whilst they were still ‘live’. The delay had also allowed time for thoughts to maturate a little, an indulgence of sorts that has been especially opportune with Rhys James’ works that have lodged in my thoughts throughout the past year. As the anniversary of ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’ approaches, I feel compelled to write my review at long last.
Starting with an overall impression, there was a sense that the work could have stayed in the Wolfson gallery space permanently. It somehow felt ‘at home’. A display of 13 paintings in a fairly compact space, one large elongated rectangular room that felt like three, as there are 11 walls, made for a powerful and emotionally impactful experience. The works were hung close together under strong spotlights that emphasised a chiaroscuro effect on works that featured bold colour and distinct tonal contrasts. In whichever direction one turned, and with any of the individual paintings selected, the viewer would be confronted by powerful imagery from the whole composition and, by stepping closer to get a sniff of the paint, details from small sections of the canvases were just as absorbing and captivating.
‘Boy and Bouquet’
Take, for example, a close-up section from the vase of flowers in ‘Boy and Bouquet’. Before arriving at these few square inches of canvas and paint that renders the top half of the vase, a mass of colourful blooms virtually fill the composition, brashly commanding and demanding attention as a child might. The vase in the foreground stands firm beneath this explosion of colour and painterly texture, perched as it is on a narrow white band of white linen on the tabletop edge that forms a counterpoint to the much larger black square of silence behind. In the bottom left hand corner of the composition a young, plump-faced boy stares, it would appear, at the implied viewer – or he may substitute the artist herself confronting the observer. His face, especially the eyes, acts as a focal point in the composition but one could be equally drawn to the row of yellow flowers that form a horizontal band across the mid-centre of the canvas. But with a swift movement the observer’s eye could swoop down the drooping stem of what might be a yellow tulip falling over the top half of the chunky looking vase. Here the eye could stay awhile to explore the surface of the canvas, slipping down further to an indistinct landscape on one of the facets of the ceramic form. The paint handling could be considered crude, but knowing when to leave a section as (apparently) unpolished as this is no mean feat when enough has been said. What is spoken, visually and materially, is quietly of itself. Nothing beyond flower forms, observed from real or decorative surface pattern by the artist, is to be elucidated.
An observer could have simply enjoyed the painting for what it is. But with a glance to one side to read Rhys James’ additional caption for ‘Boy and Bouquet’ revealed further scope and potential for interpretation:
“A small boy is dwarfed by a giant bouquet of flowers. I had been looking at a painting Degas did of a woman beside an enormous vase of chrysanthemums. My grandchild said ‘boys don’t like flowers’.”
The connection with the boy is pertinent, and undoubtedly special, for Rhys James but she expands upon a particular familial event by invoking a work of one of the greatest of early Modernism’s painters by referencing, ‘A Woman Seated beside a Vase of Flowers’, held in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Whilst Degas, from a pre-Feminist age, might be equating this ‘pretty young lady’ alongside the bouquet of dahlias, asters, and gaillardias, Rhys James is both cheekily and seriously planting this very young boy next to a gregariously joyful bouquet in her own home. Never underestimate, or take for granted, a bunch of flowers. Given an alternative reading they might offer some other commentary on notions of ‘maleness’ too.
This effective curatorial decision, to include an explanation from Rhys James for all of the works in the show, broadened a reading of the images out of sync with the majority of ‘white cube’ affected exhibitions nowadays. In the context of a rural location, imbued with the fascinating history of a well known ‘extended’ family of sorts, there might be something unwittingly progressive about the inclusion of this text, as if Rhys James was at your shoulder, feeding you benevolent anecdotes as an additional narrative. The artist’s commentaries punctuate but do not interrupt the flow of imagery throughout the hanging. They vary in length too, which eschews any sense of strict curatorial guidelines to restrict this alternative conversation with the viewer.
The longest text, at over a hundred words, accompanies ‘Black Chandelier’, an un-domestically large canvas that invited very close inspection despite almost doubling as a wall-based installation. This canvas offers a fairly stark composition from the correct viewing distance, presenting a black chandelier suspended from the top of the canvas in the left half and a female figure dressed in black attire sprouting up from the right hand section. These two elements create a dynamic diagonal visual tension within the rectangular format that strongly suggests an implied narrative between object and person. But it’s the background of Edwardian style floral wallpaper that flattens out the implied interior space despite logically knowing that the chandelier, a pseudo-candelabrum, is placed in the foreground, with the figure just a step or two behind. The patterned and stylised flower forms, that with a feminist reading might represent vulvas, are regimentally repeated across the canvas as a visual manifesto.
The lengthy wall text references a literary source: “Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novella, The Yellow Wallpaper, as about a woman suffering from hysteria who was placed out of sight… at the top of the house… The walls are covered in yellow patterned wallpaper. She loathes the wallpaper and imagines a small black figure…” and that “This was one of the first feminist tracts…” This is serious literary and political content and we might think again about symbolism, culturally assigned gender-roles, the home, family and individual existential reality rendered so straightforwardly in this and other works in the exhibition.
‘Glass of Water’ / ‘Oil of Ulay 2’
A relatively small jug of water and a piece of cloth placed in the bottom left hand corner of Degas’ aforementioned painting balances the gravitational weight of the woman on the right. Likewise, in Rhys James’, ‘Glass of Water’, a similar prop occupies the top right hand corner of a composition that suggests a late, minimalist/abstract, Rothko painting. This intimation of colour-field abstraction is also present in ‘Oil of Ulay 2’, where a backdrop screen of red extends three quarters of the way down the canvas and then continues its journey in vertical rivulets. In this lower quarter a hairbrush and a bottle of Oil of Ulay (now rebranded, ‘Olay’) float like flat constructivist forms from the 1950s. The elderly woman’s resting hand adds a third visual element that transforms object to subject. The red void provided was one route into the composition, but it is most likely that a viewer would enter via the subject’s arresting stare. These examples, the most compelling images in the show, pay homage of sorts to the artist’s mother. She appears to be an indomitable character, worthy of celebration within her daughter’s oeuvre. Her pictorial preservation in these works is surely a testament to the bond between mother and daughter. The raw, brutal honesty is strangely beautiful, but Rhys James does not go in for sentimentality.
These two simple domestic tableau in ‘Oil of Ulay 2’, a hairbrush and a bottle of ‘beauty cream’ (as a child might innocently call it), allude to a remaining element of self-respect more than vanity. As for the glass of water in ‘Glass of Water’, it potentially speaks of more than refreshment throughout hours of rest or confinement. For water is a symbol of divine life and purity, and is especially emphasised against the blackest of backdrops. The narrative is both mundane and spiritual – is the bed a place of rest, confinement or refuge? The interpretation is up to the viewer in these and, indeed, all of the works selected for ‘Tea on the Sofa, Blood on the Carpet’. Depending on your age and experience in life these engrossing portraits might be read as ‘matter of fact’ or deeply disturbing. A child could recognise a grandparent, or an adult might detect a premonition of a stage in life not so far away. For a carer of a senior the impact could be felt most deeply and upsetting.
No one could have left this exhibition without lasting impressions. Rhys James’ practice is multifaceted, with conjoined matters of painting practice in a digital era (perhaps reminiscing, proclaiming or asserting painting); family orientated as it impacts on personal selfhood and changing generational roles (including cultural expectations); and in being assertively feminist with humour and pathos.
This was certainly a show for other painters to see as well, as any evidence of struggling with the medium of oil paint had been expertly disciplined to serve the needs of the compelling imagery that distinguishes this work. By ‘expertly’ I mean that the handling of the paint medium has not only been adeptly and skilfully realised through many years of experience and practice, notwithstanding Rhys James’ continuing exploration that reveals the contradiction of struggle as part of the deal, but is also attuned to the potential of the subject matter and the possibilities inherent in the materiality and visuality of the medium itself.
This sense of a dynamic embodiment of readings has, ideally, to be experienced by the viewer in the presence of the paintings, but the enlivening and stimulating combination of image, subject matter and a viscerally coloured and textured surface facture, endures beyond an initial viewing. Whilst the content goes far deeper than simply enjoying the paintings for their immediate visual impact, for viewed from half a yard or less there is always an engrossing content of captivatingly brushed, palette-knifed, dragged and drawn marks in every work that rewards inspection. This brings us back to the paint and its alchemical properties to become something or somewhere else in the memory, the here and now or beyond language or pronouncement. Where the visual is both animated and physical, time bound and fleeting; and space is past and present, inward as well as external.
I am reminded of a comment about the mystery and complexity of painting made by the American painter, Joe Bradley:
“I think it hopefully escapes language and kind of stops a linguistic read. I don’t think the idea is to be evasive or tricky, but I think one thing that painting does well is to broadcast contradictory content in a single view, as opposed to a book or movie that leads you through. Good painting sort of stops time and jams up the works – in a good way.”
The medium is the message.
The Wolfson Foundation
Shani Rhys James has been represented by Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff since 1992 and by Connaught Brown in London since 2007.
Martin Tinney Gallery
Ryan Steadman talking to Joe Bradleyhttps://observer.com/2016/04/the-full-bradley-a-painters-painter-talks-about-painting/