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A Writer’s Artist
by Francesca Rhydderch 2015

The work of Shani Rhys James seems to hold a special fascination for writers, more than that of any other visual artist I know. Just last year she published a book produced in collaboration with seven poets, including Carol Ann Duffy, Gillian Clarke and Menna Elfyn. Florilinguaaccompanied a touring exhibition of her work, which featured a visual/sound installation – a specially created room in which poems are spoken from a mouth on a screen surrounded by her characteristically savage, uncontainable flowers. In this instance they were set up as a three-dimensional space, and you had to stand inside them in order to get close to the words. The viewer/listener became the centre of the flower, crucial to the fruition of the installation. This dynamic relationship is typical of Shani Rhys James’s work.

The poems in Florilingua are rich, multi-layered responses to paintings that are equally elaborate, challenging and darkly attractive. In Gillian Clarke’s ‘White Lilies’, for example, the lilies ‘yawn like leopards’, alternately beautiful and menacing: ‘They grow over the windows, the doors, / till I’m spellbound in the story / of a girl-woman tamed and trapped / in a tower in a wood in a thicket / of flowers, where something/ is breathing, is purring, is prowling.’ Clarke’s poem captures with utter precision the re-tuning of relationships that occurs in Rhys James’s latest work between the animate and supposedly inanimate.

Her paintings are also a popular choice for book covers – Jasmine Donahaye’sMisappropriations, which uses a detail from Black Cot II, is just one poetry collection that comes to mind. Interestingly, Donahaye was also one of the poets invited by Rhys James to contribute to Florilingua, and her poem ‘The Boarding House’ gives convincing fictional voice to Rhys James’s experience as a child of emigrating from Australia to Britain with her mother: ‘… But it’s that child, / the silent child: she’s what’s not right. / He knows she’s there, even if she doesn’t speak; she’s always there, five steps up, listening and waiting, / out of sight.’ What Donahaye’s poem also evokes so well in its final lines is the slant perspective of the curious, displaced child. It is exactly this sidelong viewpoint that informs recent paintings by Rhys James, such as Orange Flock and Blue Top, which featured in her 2013 exhibition The Rivalry of Flowers.

If I had been able to choose a Shani Rhys James painting for the cover of my recent novel The Rice Paper Diaries – one of those dark, lost girls with the broken stare – then I would have done; they seemed to share with my character Mari that uncanny distance between life lived and life remembered, the opposite of hiraeth, or homesickness, the romantic nostalgia with which we sometimes paint childhood. But commercial considerations have to come into play for publishers (and writers), even where literary fiction is concerned. The ‘market’ just doesn’t seem to be enthusiastic about paintings as cover images for novels, so I had to file the thought away, and keep that deep sense of connection with Rhys James’s work to myself.

Seen now from a distance – it’s almost two years since I finished the book –

I can see how that affinity sprang partly from the fictional imaging in my own story of my relationships with the women in my family, especially with my mother, who died nearly twenty years ago, and my own daughter, who is now eight, close to the age that Shani Rhys James was when she experienced the huge culture shock of moving from Australia to London. Having said that, these images – literary and visual – are very much fictions and not self-portraits. It would be reductive to view Shani Rhys James’s work as purely autobiographical, despite the fact that the creative source from which it springs is by her own admission her combined experiences as a daughter, mother and artist (she has spoken elsewhere of her loving, complex relationship with her mother as one of the cornerstones of her work). The numerous ‘heads’ that she has painted and continues to paint they may seem to be an extended series of self-portraits, with their small-boned, staring faces, but their titles alone alert us to the far more complicated dynamics at work: Capricorn Beetle, French Bedroom IIor more simply Re-visited, or Head II, or Big Head to the Right. These heads are often (very specific) Everywomen onto whom the viewer can project herself. This is what makes Rhys James’s work so intensely compelling: like it or not, the viewer is brought into the heart of the work, living out the sometimes dark family tableaux as their own, feeling their own selves pushing their way to the surface of the skin like blood.

When I interviewed Shani Rhys James for a previous book to accompany The Rivalry of Flowers exhibition, I asked her to pinpoint for me exactly when her characters started to look back at the viewer, to challenge him with her gaze. The answer came without hesitation: it was in her late thirties when she reconnected with her father after a gap of many years. ‘It was at that point in my life,’ she told me, ‘that the people in my paintings started to look back out of the picture, as if to say, And who are you? Where’ve you been? Who do you think you are? and Who do you think I am?’ Having emphasised the fictional nature of Rhys James’s portraits, it’s fair to say that her work, brought together as it is for this major retrospective,Distillation, can also be seen as charting – in broad-brush terms, if not in the detail – some of the artist’s own development as a woman and as an artist. The narrative thread is easily definable if not strictly chronological. In Black Cot, Latex Glove, for example, a child stares out through the bars of her iron cot and the viewer stares back through the same bars. The only other sign of life in an otherwise empty room is the artist’s (temporarily abandoned?) rubber glove lying on the floor. Similarly, in Chicken Coop III the young girl stands with her bare feet turned out in a sulky miming of a balletic pose, standing next to the black box of the chicken coop, which seems to contain all her real desires, safely imprisoned, out of sight.

Motherhood and art, described as a series of umbilical tugs and counter-tugs, are all that matter during these years. They crowd out everything else, leaving a stark intensity particular to this time in the mother-artist’s life. The results are by turns profound, beautiful, shocking, dark, mysterious. In ‘Blue Chair, White Corset’ (1995) we witness not one but numerous gloves on the floor under the crowded table in the artist’s studio, while the artist’s white coat bleeds colour onto the floor. ‘Boards’ is more typical of the expansive family tableaux of this period, with the half-undressed mother staring with a baleful passion at the equally half-undressed father, who shields himself from her, and perhaps our, gaze behind a high-backed chair. Often in the family tableaux individuals do not touch each other but are somehow notseparate. They have that magnetic attraction for each other that all families have, a force that draws everyone – mother, father, young children – to the one room, no matter the size of the house. They have no notion of being apart.

Later paintings concentrate on the more focused drama of the relationship between mother and daughter, as Rhys James stages over and over again the experience of arriving in Britain from Australia during the pitilessly cold winter of 1962. They also enact the moment at which the girl became an artist, the moment at which she found her vision, an aspect of the Rhys James’s young female characters that wasn’t perhaps fully articulated until the appearance of the works that make up The Rivalry of Flowers and Florilingua. Into these later series of paintings burst also Rhys James’s unleashed wallpaper and aggressively withering flowers (witness the petals dropping onto the table in Manganese Blue Wallpaper for example, or hand-grabs of wildflowers arranged in jugs in close proximity to domestic but sometimes dangerous objects, as with the scissors in Cut Flowers). Although Shani Rhys James may seem fascinated by the most feminine imagery she constantly pushes it to an extreme, beyond the merely beautiful to where real passions, dark and immeasurable, lie.

The titles of many of Rhys James’s paintings offer a clue as to where those passions might be found. Always interesting, never clichéd – And As For You! is just one especially striking example – they gesture without exception to a world beyond the canvas: there is in the background a context as alive and writhing as any of her wallpapered flowers. As the daughter of an actress and an avid reader herself, Shani Rhys James grew into a highly literate, articulate artist, and just as literature is made of literature, so too are her paintings and installations made out of a literary tradition as well as that of visual art. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in her installation Red Doll’s House, over which plays a recording of her mother reading the part of Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

This, maybe, is where Rhys James’s appeal for writers may be best located, in the before and after of the paintings and installations as well as the experience of looking at them in present, real time. This is an aspect of Rhys James’s work that came to mind constantly when I was working on a recent story, ‘The Taxidermist’s Daughter’, in which the characters walk around taxidermy as a work of art in its own right, taking in the dramatic moment it represents, fascinated by the blood and guts dripping from a vixen’s mouth, its terrible beauty captured by the taxidermist’s science for all eternity.

Shani Rhys James studied at St Martin’s College of Art several years after my mother did her degree there. My mother, like Shani, was equally torn between the beauty of words and images. The last poem she quoted before she died (word perfect, with her eyes shut) was ‘Song at the Year’s Turning’ by R. S. Thomas, which ends: ‘Winter rots you; who is there to blame? / The new grass shall purge you in its flame.’ There is something in Shani’s work, in the way it embraces the cyclical nature of life without trying to prettify it, that evokes in me a visceral reaction. Although my response is marked by my own associations and experiences, I know from hearing others talk about Shani’s art that she similarly reduces them to tears. Its equivalent in literature might be thought of as ‘ecstatic realism’: it may appear to the naked eye to be naturalistic, but there something exaggerated and excessive about it which gives it a powerful emotional force without rendering it merely sentimental. The physical reality of motherhood prevents it from being so – 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.

To see such an extensive selection of Shani Rhys James’s work brought together to celebrate her sixtieth birthday is to begin to understand what a major artist she is. She has always had something to say, and she has the talent and creative vision constantly to find new ways of saying it. At sixty there’s no sign of her creative juices running dry, or her willingness to stand apart from the art establishment. Shani Rhys James will always be herself, continuing to challenge, provoke and thrill.

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