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Shani Rhys James grew up in the theatre. Her mother was an actress and she considered following in her footsteps before going instead to St Martin’s School of Art. Although primarily a painter, Rhys James also creates installation pieces and kinetic sculptures, most recently with her mother’s voice reading some of her key roles. Her paintings, too, with their reds and blacks, flock wallpaper and floral bouquets, appear like stage sets into which female protagonists – not necessarily self-portraits, but amalgams of memories or feelings – stray and, all too often, become trapped.
Rhys James paints wholeheartedly, directly on to the canvas, with no real preconception of how a work will look once finished. The oil is thick and slathered on with palette knives, brushes and fingers, before being drawn into or cut across. She doesn’t believe in pretty pictures, and her flowers are certainly not delicate feminine motifs, but memento mori, cut from their life source, beautiful and intoxicating, but dying. Sometimes they are so large, so sculpted, they become personae in their own right.
Coming from a world where those around her are taking on roles and putting on masks, Rhys James seeks, through her painting, to remove these facades and reveal what lies beneath – for her, a particular form of melancholia. Her talismanic mirror accompanies and aids her in this goal, representing also the looking carried out by viewers, who, drawn in actively by the plaintive figures, become as implicit and as caught as they are, facing their exposed realities – past and present – and vulnerable futures.
Shani Rhys James: Caught in the Mirror
Connaught Brown, London
10 September – 3 October 2015
Interview by ANNA McNAY
Filmed by MARTIN KENNEDY