Shani Rhys James was born in 1953 in Melbourne, Australia to a an Australian mother and a Welsh father (she didn’t meet the latter until she was 38). Her mother and step-father, a theatre director, ‘ran a small, intimate theatre… So from an early age I was watching turn-of-the-century plays by Chekhov, Ibsen and Strindberg… which deal with these psychologically frustrated, educated women.’ When Shani was nine, she and her mother – who had been lauded for the way she played Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – sailed from Melbourne to a new life in England. From 1972-3, Rhys James studied at Loughborough College of Art; from 1973-6 at St Martin’s School of Art, London. She is married to the artist Stephen West, a fellow student at St Martin’s; they moved to Llangadfan, Wales in 1984.
In her 2009 self-portrait, Pink Flock, the artist’s mien is less overtly anguished or startlingly wild-eyed than in other of her self-portraits; the figure has the look of an archetypal refugee. An initial impression of gentle composure belies a raw underlying resonance of perhaps inchoate grief. In the meditative silence of her rural Welsh studio, Rhys James confronts herself continually in a small, hand-held talismanic mirror when making self-portraits: ‘you get … the relationship with light hitting the face at different angles.’ The plaintive face here has become a landscape reflecting an inner psychic weather of subtle turbulence and oscillating lucid and then occluded states of being – conjured up by the spontaneously deliberated application of coalescing white, red and blue paint.
In making such a work – ‘I don’t even do preparatory drawings, I just go straight into the painting’ – ‘the intense moments are very brief; it’s only a short time you can actually concentrate like that.’ She observes that her self-portraits are full of ‘sweet melancholy… it’s that reflective thing when you just are unguarded, caught in the mirror. I think being brought up in the theatre it was all so much to do with mask, with putting on a face. In a way, I’m trying to do the opposite of that so you get underneath the mask, and the figures actually stare at you… It’s not really myself… it’s more a psychological state of me… different aspects of me but also of other women. I start off with myself; loosely there is a sort of semblance to me… you’re looking at the paint becoming… skin or flesh.’ Her self-portraits have an affinity with the visceral painterly vivacity of Munch, Soutine, Bacon and Freud.
She writes that ‘Pink Flock came out of a series of paintings I did where the woman’s head is painted against a wallpapered background… I suppose it is my state of mind, so yes it is a self-portrait. I was interested in the writings of Charlotte Perkins Gilman – her novella The Yellow Wallpaper [1892, in which the female protagonist is trapped in a state of draining convalescent inactivity in an attic room decorated with hideous patterned paper on the walls – on which her undiverted attention focuses with eery phantasmagoric results to the point that she becomes deranged; a figure often seen since as symbolising the condition of women as powerless playthings in a patriarchal society] and Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. In both these writings, the woman is shown as being trapped in the house in different ways, a possession like the furniture and children of her husband. And so the house becomes her domain like a gilded cage. The close proximity of the wallpaper, shows that she is almost becoming part of it [indeed the woman’s head casts an ominous shadow on the patterned wall]. I painted this on actual flock wallpaper, so there is a contrast between the flock mechanical print and the face’s organic paint matter.’
Such paintings echo memories Rhys James has of arriving in England in the freezing winter of 1963 – ‘we got to this house where we were meant to stay, and this woman said, ‘there’s been this terrible mistake… never mind, come upstairs’… and I saw that this little girl had this beautiful doll’s house… a cosy little interior, all very nice and civilised… and we went out into the cold again, into the taxi, to a really grim hotel. The only thing I remember about that was… flock wallpaper… so evocative of luxury… but in these rather grim bedsits. So the wallpaper is very much about both us being in our own little world… quite self-enclosed, just coping… It isn’t me any more, it’s just a memory, some kind of glimpse of something.’
Rhys James’s recurrent use of white, black and red paint carries a sensuous primal force. She greatly admires Goya’s Black Paintings, saying they mirror not ‘a dark side’ but rather pure unconscious emotion. ‘Red is different in different cultures. It’s something to do with the vibrancy of life, living blood… I find when I use it, it is invigorating. Interesting to put the figures into that red because the face and the quality of skin is related… it has a singing quality sometimes.’
In small, spare self-portrait heads of excoriating acuity, Rhys James eliminates extraneous detail. By contrast, in larger gorgeously disquieting self-portraits, many made in the studio she has had in Charente, France since 2010, the artist’s head is ensnared by the expressionistic ‘luxuriance of [the] abstract shapes’ of flowers, exuberantly taking over the whole canvas. ‘There’s that unruliness about the flowers that I like really, anarchic spirits.’
The artist’s paintings are in many Collections, including those of the Arts Council of England, Museum of Modern Art, Wales and Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow.
Except for excerpts from a written statement by the artist to Philip Vann, all quotations from Rhys James come from a BBC documentary, ‘What Do Artists Do All Day? Shani Rhys James’ (first broadcast 13th November 2013) and an interview with Anna McNay to coincide with the artist’s 2015 exhibition ‘Caught in the Mirror’ at Connaught Brown, London.