Who is Shani Rhys James? That seems to me to be the central question underlying all of her paintings.
Many of the very best of them are gathered together in Distillation, a big retrospective of her works in Oriel Gregynog at the National Library of Wales. This is quite simply an overwhelming exhibition. It’s remarkable in its size (no other single exhibition space in Wales could accommodate it), in its scope (the whole of Shani’s career from the 1980s to the present), in the size of most of the individual paintings, and in the visual and emotional power they exert.
What binds all the works together is a fierce, undistracted concentration on the artist’s self. For Shani, the self gazes back out of a mirror. For us spectators, she stares at us, always face-on, from the stage of her blood-red pictures.
James Hall, in his recent book The self-portrait: a cultural history (2014) has this to say about the way in which the artist’s self-portrait has changed in the last hundred years:
Self-portraiture in the twentieth century has been many things, but its most distinctive quality is its tendency to conceal or suppress the face and head, thereby thwarting traditional physiognomic/phrenological readings.
If this is true, Shani Rhys James is a strong swimmer against the cultural tide. She’s not interested in any of the proxies for self that Hall lists as the characteristic manoeuvres of modern artists: masks and disguises, whole-body description, conceptualist narcissism, ‘poignant imprints’. These contemporary turnings-away from the artist’s own face have roots in an old master tradition – Vermeer’s The art of painting (c1666-68) is a radical turning away, a portrait of the painter’s own back – but Shani aligns herself with the mainstream line of Durer and other northern European painters who tackle self-scrutiny in an uncompromising, completely direct, head-on way. This is not, though, the artist as hero, or occasionally as mock hero, as it was so often for the ‘old masters’. Shani is much closer to the self-reading of the later Rembrandt, coolly and consistently locked on to the individual person(a) in the mirror.
Shani stages her self-interrogations not just in individual self-portraits, like those created at the time she won the Jerwood Prize in 2003, but in the larger works featuring multiple figures, key objects and settings. They help to locate the self in two special contexts: the family and the studio. For family, read ‘mother and child relationship’, because that is Shani’s defining emotional axis. More specifically, it’s the bond between young daughter and mother – a bond that may be close but is never uncomplicatedly intimate and loving. The central ‘prop’ in these scenes is the baby’s cot – as Iwan Bala notes in his essay in the pamphlets published by Shani to accompany the exhibition, not the orthodox white cot but a cage-like black cot in which the child is immured. Mother and child, and sometimes other figures, don’t interact, but gaze at us the spectators, or appeal to us, like the dramatic characters in Ibsen’s A doll’s house, a work of central importance to Shani and her actor mother.
These paintings are to do with memory – with a specific period of Shani’s childhood before and after her fateful move from Australia to Britain when she was nine years old in the bitter cold winter of 1962 – or maybe with remembered memories, or even, to take a further step back from actuality, personal and family myth.
But the self also exists in the here and now. The artist’s self is most alive in the process of creating. For the painter the archetypal location is her studio, where self-examination starts before the canvas is prepared, the paint tubes aligned, the ladder extended, the gloves unpacked. An important group of ‘studio paintings’ lets us into the mysteries of an artist’s creativity by restaging the theatre of painting. Here is the artist, white gowned, surrounded by the paraphernalia of paint: tubes, tins, brushes, knife and, most strikingly, white latex gloves, scattered on the floor where they were thrown, like already discarded attempts at nailing a self-identity. In Palette knife the studio is an operating theatre. The gown’s bright red; so is the surgeon’s cap. The artist holds her knife vertical, ready to rework her own head taking shape on the canvas behind her. In Black cot and latex glove the two worlds of childhood and studio, past and present, collide, through some accidental rip in the space-time continuum: below the cot a single artist’s glove lies, abandoned and unseen by the baby standing inside. The novelist Francesca Rhydderch, who contributes another of the pamphlet essays, is referring to this work when she writes,
The physical reality of motherhood prevents it from being [sentimental] – the artist’s latex glove under the baby’s cot reminds us how these two worlds exist inside each other like Russian dolls. Life and art constantly leach into each other, never more so than for the young mother who is experiencing a wonderfully rich flowering of her creativity. The chicken coop of family breeds art as well as life.
One of my most vivid experiences during the fifteen years I spent in Aberystwyth was visiting Shani’s home in Llangadfan, and especially the barn she uses as a studio, listening to her talking about the paintings stacked around the tall walls, and finally choosing one, Studio with gloves, for permanent inclusion in the National Library’s collection.
That same sense of vividness was revived instantly as soon as I walked into Oriel Gregynog last week and caught sight of the works: their violent patterning of reds and blacks, the forceful brushwork and scumbling, the insistent motifs repeated with variations from painting to painting, above all the faces, young and mature, all of them asking the same questions of the viewer: who am I? and, by extension, who are you? Because although these are works that have unmistakeable autobiographical roots they ask more universal questions about who each of us was in the past, how we remember our previous selves, who we think we are now, and how we embed our self in our art and the way we live now.
It’s hard to imagine how anyone encountering ‘Distillation’ for the first time could fail to conclude that they were in the presence of a major artist. Alas, I should be very surprised if a single one of the London art critics, who have a tendency to be lazy and parochial, bothers to make the journey to Aberystwyth to expose themselves and their followers to these astonishing works. Now there’s a challenge!
‘Distillation’ continues in the National Library of Wales until 23 May 2015. A sister exhibition featuring Shani’s automata, ‘Cassandra’s rant’ is at Ceredigion Museum until 14 March.