Welsh artist Shani Rhys James’ portraits are brutally honest and emotionally charged. Many of the paintings in the exhibition draw on Rhys James’ childhood memories or explore her uneasy relationship with her mother. In ‘Blue Top’ (2013), the woman is depicted in early middle age, looming large above her small daughter, while in ‘Glass of Water’ (2017), she lies hunched against her pillows after suffering a stroke late in life. In both large paintings, the woman’s dark eyes stare out from the canvas – pupils which, on closer inspection, resolve from black into impasto swirls of purple, blue and green.
Each image features an aspect of domestic life; patterned wallpaper, chandeliers, dresses and bunches of flowers are repeated motifs. The works draw attention to how such objects become imbued with meaning over the course of a lifetime. For instance, Rhys James addresses how, after a life-changing event like a stroke, a hairbrush can be transformed from a simple tool to an object of difficulty and discomfort. In ‘Oil of Ulay II’ (2019), the bristles of a hairbrush are inscribed into its surface with the sharp end of a paintbrush, forming vicious-looking jagged spikes.
This reading is supported by Rhys James’ explicit references to ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, an 1892 short story about post-natal depression by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Several paintings in the exhibition feature yellow wallpaper similar to that described in the novella, suggesting women’s psychological entanglement in domestic spaces.
The exhibition features an aptly chosen selection of works for its context at Charleston, where Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and their kaleidoscopic array of friends, relations and lovers lived out an unconventional system of complex family dynamics. In particular, Rhys James’ exploration of her relationship with her mother is evocative of the mixture of love and neglect Angelica Garnett felt she in turn received from her mother Vanessa Bell.
Moreover, Bell and Grant’s farmhouse is a perfect exemplar of the intermingling of art and life that is conjured by Rhys James’ paintings. The house abounds in objects that are either hand-painted or that appear in paintings or photographs, or both. In Rhys James’ portraits and the many incarnations of Charleston (in words and images, as home and museum), there is an uncanny not-quite-perfect mirroring between physical reality and artistic subjectivity. Shani Rhys James’ ‘Manikin’ (2019) captures this, presenting a still life in front of a mirror where each object is doubled – except for the ghostly white manikin of the title, which is visible in the reflection but disturbingly absent in the foreground.
From a child in a cot to an old woman in a hospital bed, Shani Rhys James’ latest body of work charts the transience of human life – and the intense emotional and aesthetic significance of the everyday domestic spaces and objects experienced along the way.