The Yellow Gloves
by Peter Lord
It’s just as well that occasionally – very occasionally – hope does triumph over expectation. Without the rare victories, it would be impossible to go on.
When it does happen, hope tends to triumph in unlikely places. In 1987, I visited the Mid-Wales Open exhibition of painting at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. It was an event and a venue with particularly depressing provenance. But on that day, my dutiful perusal of the mediocrities was transformed into an experience of such intensity that still I can recall it in detail. I am not given to hyperbole, especially retrospective hyperbole, but I knew within moments that the picture I had come across was extraordinary. No need to complicate the issue, it was, quite simply, startling. The picture was vivid and frank, it was big and strong, there was colour and there was narrative, there was freshness – and yet there was also the familiarity that facilitates immediate engagement. It was a picture in a tradition – the tradition of Beckmann, perhaps, re-emerging at that time from the obscurity imposed by decades of critical fascination with non-figurative sterilities, and closer to home, the Merthyr paintings of Heinz Koppel. The familiarity of art tradition was reinforced by the personal familiarity of the narrative, at least insofar as I could read it on first acquaintance. The claustrophobic space, the table, the simple wooden door, the crock, the teapot – this was the way we lived. It could have been my house, my kitchen, or the kitchen of many of my friends in that community of young strangers that had arrived in rural Wales over the previous fifteen years.
Within a minute I felt, also, that it was a picture that might signify profound change. I went to the caption. The picture was called The Yellow Gloves, and the painter’s name was Shani Rhys James. It was a Welsh name.
If it seems strange to you that an unknown name on a caption, revealing simply that the painter was a woman and apparently Welsh, can have so intensified my reaction to the work itself, then you certainly were not around at the time. By the 1980s, those two states of mind with which I began – hope and expectation – were in extreme tension in Wales. Politics was pervasive – the politics of reaction against entrenched establishments of gender and government. The arts were deeply engaged in that politics. In theatre it was the period of the wonderful creativity of Brith Gof, intense and physical, and about to move from the intimate scale of ‘Rhydcymerau’ to the huge scenarios of ‘Gododdin’; in film, within the last couple of years Carl Francis had made ‘Milwr Bychan’ and‘Ms.Rhymney Valley’; in the literature of both languages there were new voices; and there was vibrant popular music. All of it fed into the wider politics of identity – of feminism and nationalism – that drove ideas and actions in that tense decade. Painting lagged behind, burdened by an inheritance of denial of historical tradition and the hegemony of male dominated, Anglo-centric art college practice in Cardiff and Newport, promoted by the Arts Council. Alternative voices were beginning to make themselves heard – Iwan Bala, the Beca artists – but we desperately needed new narrative painting, coming from within and sensitive to the issues of the time. In The Yellow Gloves I felt I had seen it. The picture shouted the fusion of technique, feeling and intelligence which, for want of a better word, we call ‘quality’. For me, that picture, on that day, confirmed that this place could nurture and attract, retain and sustain, people of vision and ability.
On reflection, as I look at the picture now in fact rather than in memory, it seems to me that underlying the agitated modernity of The Yellow Gloves lay a tradition older than Expressionism – the tradition of the Grand Manner. This was a picture of human interaction mythologised, acted on a stage, parallel to the picture plane – a performance in a landscape, like a Claude or a Wilson. The deep personal significance for the painter of theatricality in painting was unknown to me, at the time. The sources, the internal narratives of the picture, were obscure, but I did note the one significant feature in which the picture deviated from the Grand Manner. As in another remarkable reinvention of classical tradition, Elsi Eldridge’s The Dance of Life, just one of the characters looked out from within the populous drama, through the naked eyes that can never be hidden by costume, clothed or painted. The eyes bridged the space between the stage and the audience. The Yellow Gloves was unmistakably a self-portrait. Here was an ambiguity, of course, because for the painter of this picture, looking out was looking in. And it was clear that, examining her self against the physicality of her home and her family, the world within was uneasy. Inevitably, in 1987 and on first acquaintance, I read the issues revealed by the painting in a simplistic way – feminist issues in a conflict between domesticity and creativity, and issues of identity of a kind that many incomers were dealing with at that time. I know now, of course, that for Shani Rhys James, these issues were more extraordinary and more complicated than they were for most of us.
Few people in Wales had seen a painting by Shani before 1987. For me, first acquaintance wasThe Yellow Gloves, but for many others of us the moment would come, five years later, at the National Eisteddfod at Aberystwyth. At the core of the art exhibition were Shani’s red paintings – Blood Ties, Red Living Room, Self-portrait with Red Beret. From that point, the presence of this artist and these pictures would become a familiar part of our visual landscape. We should take care to protect the memory of their extraordinary impact when first seen, and their evolving significance for us all. Made in this place, the development of this artist’s work continues to inspire, and to sustain hope.
Peter Lord, 2014