Shaking the Aspics
by Emma Geliot
Stand in front of a Shani Rhys James painting and you’re drawn into a dark world of frozen time and suspended feeling – a fly on the wall in an aspic world. Now there’s a double metaphor, which still seems inadequate to the task of conjuring up the feeling of loss, of implied threat or distress. The picture plane is a viscous bubble behind which we can only imagine ominous sounds or dense silence.
Tap-tap-tap goes the iron finger on the table. Impatience, measured out in staccato raps. An empty cot rocks spasmodically – a frenzy of infant attention-seeking. A crinoline cage whirls; a bustle wheezes like an ancient accordion and from the doll’s house, the lights are on but no one is home, just a woman’s voice trapped in the empty miniature rooms.
Nine years ago, Rhys James had an itch that needed scratching. She could only say so much through the prism of the picture plane; could only conjure up a brief moment or sliver of time, albeit one that could evoke its own sense of continuum in the viewer. But there were other elements of narrative, gobbets of feeling that simply couldn’t be rendered in two dimensions and she needed to get them out of her system, scratch that itch.
There then followed some soul-searching: could she betray painting – PAINTING – and make objects, moving image, explore sound, write? Could she? Dare she? She dared. Cassandra’s Rant was conceived as an extra-marital adventure by an artist wedded to paint.
Painting is a solitary activity – the mind turns in and the artist’s critical response is, at first, tested against an internal monologue. ‘Does it work? Is it saying what I want it to say? Will anyone else get it?’ Externalising ideas to third parties, some unknown quantities, can be a challenge – will they get it? Rhys James is highly articulate, but there are many strands of narrative weaving through her work and she’s not so much telling stories as catching at their coat tails, snapping at loose threads. Sculptor Andy Hazell and costume designer Heather Judge clearly caught those trailing strands and were able to knit them into three-dimensional form.
So, while the paintings mine our own experience of feeling – and we all bring our own baggage to art – the automata and the objects physically provoke emotional response on another visceral level. Here the narrative has a sense of trajectory and we’re stepping into a snippet of a story arc. Where the pictures evoke emotion, these three-dimensional forms prompt residual memory retrieval: the rocking cot, the creeping pram, the headless, tapping creature all have manifest personas that seem to have walked out of the paintings to carry on a life of their own. On the wall the tide of events is either in or out and we’re in that breath-holding moment waiting for the turn. But transformed from their littoral picture plane to a literal presence, Rhys James has taken her symbols off the canvas and given them life – not the bum-slapping “isn’t she lovely” joy of birth, but Dr Frankenstein vivifying his dark fantasy.
The creation of these works was a collaborative effort – costume designers, a sculptor/automata maker, even son Matthew West is roped in – and with the excitement of collaboration comes the danger that creative intention can be lost or watered down; subverted somehow. However, put these objects in front of the paintings (and they have been shown together) and they belong. Now they’re a refined version of their more expressionistic 2D selves, but recognizable as being from the Rhys James storybook (as told by Angela Carter, rather than Enid Blyton). The binding and confinement, represented by those menacing picture crinolines, are swinging or swirling cages to be navigated around; that concertina-ing bustle gasps for air behind the corseted ribcage and the ghost baby in the cot or the pram is persistent in its neediness. There’s no need for a PhD in feminist theory to read the message of female repression, domestic pressure or that heady cocktail of guilt and frustration – filial, maternal.
And while these themes are clearly present in the paintings, the composition and use of colour provide a get-out-of-jail-free card for the viewer who doesn’t want to face such feelings head-on. Does this mean that the automata and other sculptures are less subtle, less complex? Maybe so. On their own, they are remarkable, entertaining even – well made. The wild slashes of trademark red paint are absent. Where, in the paintings, perspective is skewed or scale is adjusted for effect, the automata are human-sized, or relate to human scale. Less subtle perhaps, but their power is palpable.
And, something else also happens when the symbol leaves the page (or rather the canvas), when it manifests in something up close and personal. And there is real fear to be experienced when there’s a sudden movement where before there was stillness. The cot inBlack Cot and Latex Glove looms large when it has an airing at the National Museum of Wales (it’s in the National collection); its black bars and the mute staring face of the sad child speak volumes. However, that child is no longer still – its poltergeist rattles at its cage, unseen, pauses, then starts up again. Relentless, demanding, and very unnerving on first encounter.
Seen together with the paintings, as part of a full body of work, there is a new tension of ideas and a world is created that can be inhabited, experienced; a habitat beyond the confines of the canvas.
Emboldened by having made the leap into three dimensions, Rhys James also took on poetry and video to add another layer. Around this time, she also developed painterly interpretations of wallpaper. Not, you understand, as a nod to the delights of interior design, but referencing a wide variety of sources, including tales of murder and madness. American author, Charlotte Perkins’ short story The Yellow Wallpaper is clearly influential. The colours are acidic, brash, and the patterns grossly enlarged, overblown.
In a bare room, decorated with yellow and black patterned paper, a black spider-like chandelier looming overhead, there’s a small inset in the wall, at head height. A mouth, just a mouth, talks on and on. This is an intersection between the flat painted surface and the physical presence of the automata. If they are respectively emotional and visceral, this space is sensory. The time frame is new. While the paintings are frozen moments and the automata are bursts, this room is a looping visit to the Rhys James territory. The landscape is complete.
Emma Geliot 2015
editor at Blown magazine