top of page


by Frances Borzello April 2024

In 2015, I walked into the Mostyn gallery in Llandudno and came face to face with a huge yellow painting containing a woman staring out at me on one side and a huge black chandelier in the centre. I had no idea what it was about, but I was hooked – or as Rodgers and Hammerstein put it, more poetically and to music, I had seen a stranger across a crowded room. It may have been an enchanted afternoon instead of an enchanted evening, but I was in love.

Shani Rhys James’ paintings are powerful. They grip your lapel and dare you to look away. Three elements create that power. The first is the artist’s bold use of colour. The yellow background of my first Shani Rhys James painting is a colour that is rarely given much space to itself, but here it covered a vast expanse of background, not a tasteful interior decorator’s yellow but a yellow that was loud and unashamed. The second is the paint, thick and confident and with a life of its own. That thin white line in the hair of the woman in Sudden Glance, 2024, is readable as a rogue white hair but it is also a delicious wiggly line of paint, put there not just for its descriptive quality but for the joy of drawing it and delight in its contrasting colour. And the third is the characters’ disturbing habit of looking you in the eyes. They engage with you, demanding you to take them seriously.

A characteristic of Rhys James’ large paintings is that though they are figurative, their meaning is not always obvious. Perhaps it would be fairer to call them painted situations – not stories but juxtapositions of people and objects that lure you into wondering what is going on. But even stronger than arousing the viewer’s desire to decode is their overwhelming atmosphere of strangeness. Her imagery exudes a quality you would think could not be painted: a kind of unease, a state of mind that is slightly disturbing and instantly recognisable.

All her life Rhys James has painted self portraits, small heads hemmed in by a frame that adds to their air of compressed energy. She looks into a hand mirror, then puts it down before watching, sometimes with surprise, what appears on the canvas. This interest in seeing what comes out of her paint brush is a key to her art. She does not draw first. Instead she wades in with a loaded brush, starting with her own likeness or with one of her props, the flowers and ceramic jugs to hand in her studio or the pictures in her mind’s eye. These props and mind pictures are not random: they are part of the mythology of her memories, recollections of childhood feelings, of emotions, of parts played by her actress mother. The women who stare out at us are sometimes based on her own features, sometimes recreations of her childish self, sometimes remembered faces. Through them she reveals their states of mind, creating you might say a psychology of women.

I see her as a tightrope walker. She is a daring painter, walking a line between abstraction and realism. Between flowers as a symbol of femininity and flowers as something more sinister, part of the cycle of nature that dies as well as lives. Between naturalistic colour and arbitrary colour, as in the variations of red and white of her self portrait heads. Between paint as an almost sculptural medium and paint applied precisely to make her point. Between description and the expression of an atmosphere that suggests an emotion without telling a story.

Shani Rhys James can tell you what every painted object represents in her personal romance, but in the end it makes no difference to the power of her paintings. She once told me that some days she goes into the studio without an idea in her head and starts to paint for the sheer pleasure and excitement of making a mark. She is a true painter who loves the journey and trusts it to get her to a satisfying destination.

bottom of page