I went yesterday, for a short visit to the University Gallery Northumbria to see Shani Rhys James exhibition ‘The Rivalry of Flowers’. Rhys James is a painter I’ve known about hazily for a number of years. Her work always seemed to pop up in the listings section of the magazine Modern Painters, back in the 1990s when it was worth reading. Even in small reproduction her paintings caught the eye.
I’d never seen much of her work since however. In the gallery write up I notice Rhys James has an MBE, (for services to Welsh art) and the prices for her paintings on show at the University Gallery are substantial. She clearly has a reputation and has won major prizes like the Jerwood Painting prize in 2003. Her work is in public and private collections but doubtless a combination of living and working in Wales and choosing to be a painter rather than take the conceptual or minimalist coin, has affected her profile nationally.
This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to go and see Rhys James paintings and what fantastic paintings they are. The exhibition is a mixture of flower pictures and paintings of (usually) single figures; self portraits essentially if not actually. Some of the paintings are huge, the painted figure dwarfing the viewer. However those paintings don’t seem to me to be painted that size just to make an easy impact or to use scale to cover a paucity of ideas. With the intense stare of the women in the paintings and their wrought surfaces, tumbling with colour and shapes worked at with brushes and knives, the paintings aren’t necessarily a calming, peaceful presence in the gallery. However, if you had the space, and the budget, you could easily live with these paintings.
Maybe its the humanism in these paintings, the clear evidence that Rhys James has sought to imaginatively and skillfully work the paint to achieve her ideas. Some people might walk around the exhibition and dismiss Rhys James as a bit of a one trick pony; fundamentally painting the same few themes again and again. That misses the point of what Rhys James (and for that matter artists like Auerbach, Kossoff, Bellany or Giacometti, Mondrian, Rothko) is about, which is I think, exploring deeply and persistently what it means to exist in a society largely absent of religious or spiritual belief and doing that by trying to capture in paint or charcoal or other ‘traditional’ media, the material world around us.
When I went to the Baltic last year to see ‘playful artist’ Mark Wallinger’s exhibition there were lots of different things to see: a video piece of men constructing some scaffolding; small pebbles (reverentially handled by the Baltic staff) laid out on a room sized chequered board ; photographs of brick walls on which Mark had written ‘Mark’ as he wandered around London. I even went to see his film, commissioned for the Great North Run, which was a film of the route of the Great North Run made with a camera mounted on a car driving just ahead of the elite runners. Wallinger might say too that his work is about the material world around us, I can’t remember exactly what he said at the Q & A he had with Kirsty Wark. It might be amusing or distracting when your standing in front of it but there’s a dilettante quality about Wallinger’s work that is completely missing from the work of a painter like Shani Rhys James.
What yesterday’s visit reminded me was how powerful good painting is and how necessary it is in our increasingly meretricious, shallow and frequently corrupt commercialised society. A society made up of vested interests, celebrity gossip, royal babies, mendacious politicos and tax dodging rip-off multinational companies leaching off the working poor.