“I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.”
“I do not literally paint that table, but the emotion it produces upon me.”
In Black Painting with Lilies a woman peers from behind a big jug of flowers. Her expression is anxious, as if the slightest disturbance might send her scurrying away back into the shadows. Watchful and suspicious she seems to sniff the air, her eyes darting from behind the jungle of blooms like those of some fugitive animal. Half her face remains obscured, while the other half is lit from an invisible light source, emerging nervously from the raven blackness, dark as Goya’s Pinturas negras, with their haunting themes of panic, fear and hysteria. What is she looking at? What can she see? Why is she afraid? It’s as if she is holding out the pot of flowers as an offering, using it as a barrier between herself and the world.The flowers are mostly white lilies, though a few are pink and there are some yellow sprigs that might be marigolds. But mostly they are white. Funeral lilies, wedding lilies. Their virginal pallor is almost sacrificial. On the table beside them sits a fluted white china teapot and an empty jam jar. These objects recur again and again in Shani Rhys James’s paintings. The belly shaped teapot, with its squat curves, embodies the traditional feminine qualities of warmth and nurture, in contrast to the jam jar, which is empty and cold to the touch.
You don’t have to be a psychologist to read these images as a refashioning of the 19th century tropes about feminine psychology. Shani Rhys James taps into these conceits and the idea of the repressed hysteric. Wife, mother, home-maker are juxtaposed with the empty vessel, the tabula rasa of the artist who might express less acceptable feelings.The domestic face of femininity is contrasted with a fragile, empty self that needs to be filled by ar t in order to exist. Such doubling occurs in 19th century literature, for example, in the ‘good’, compliant Jane Eyre and her doppelganger, ‘mad’ Bertha Mason hidden away in Rochester’s attic, with her over sexualised presence and mocking laugh.
In Behind the Lilies, the wide-eyed female figure is almost entirely obscured by the floral spray, trapped between the slightly decadent flock wall paper behind her and the jug of white flowers in front. You can almost smell the overpowering sweetness, the acrid, bodily perfume as they slowly decay turning from the virginal to the putrid. Shani Rhys James is by no means the first female painter to use flowers to explore psychosexual dynamics. Georgia O’ Keeffe produced a body of suggestive anatomical flower paintings. But Rhys James’s blooms are more ambiguous, more ambivalent. While they are certainly eroticised, they also speak of transience and the passing of time.
Scissors is, in many ways, a traditional vanitas painting, in which fruits and decaying flowers were inserted into a picture alongside expensive objects as symbols of life’s fleeting nature and a reminder that moral considerations deserve more attention than material things. Here the flamboyant poppies shake their red skirts like blousy showgirls. The impasto is thick, fleshy and slightly dissolute. Beside the chinoiserie vase lies a pair of open scissors.The symbolism is unmistakable: what blooms will also die. As in Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, the ‘time-glossed’ rare blooms with “their lavish scent, /Heady and opulent, /with wisps of amber-like perfumes;” are metaphors both of excess and decay.
While Shani Rhys James’s earlier paintings dealt with the frictions of the mother/daughter relationship and the difficulties experienced as the only child of a flamboyant, itinerant actress, these paintings confront the loss of fertility and ageing. In previous work the mother has been a ubiquitous presence, appearing either as a second figure or transmogrified into a louring black chandelier, akin to Louise Bourgeois’s matriarchal spider, Maman, that hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the figure of the girl.
There has been much talk of the demise of painting but Shani Rhys James has eschewed fashion to follow her own course in the tradition of Freud, Auerbach and Kossoff, painters who luxuriate in the materiality of paint. Often bracketed with Frida Kahlo and Paula Rego for the confessional qualities in her work, neither of these artists are quite an accurate equivalence, for both are far more graphic. Among her contemporaries Rhys James might more appropriately be seen alongside Chantal Joffe, with whose edgy, painterly canvases hers have something in common. But to find her true precursor we need to go back to the German expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker. For with her sensual fleshy paint, her raw, unflinching self-portraits, and the pull between the psychological difficulties of being a daughter, wife and artist, she inhabits a similar terrain. In Caught in the Mirror, a single figure holds up a small oval looking-glass to confront both bald reality and the passing of time. Here Shani Rhys James scrutinises not only herself as a woman and an artist but holds a questioning glass up to us all.