If a work of art is too readily enjoyable, a pall of suspicion can hang over it. Perhaps popular means, oh lord, panderingly populist. Similarly, if something plays hard to get, if it’s only really understood when some kind of elaborate explanation has been offered in justification of its obscurities - think of much conceptual art, for example - it’s easy to overvalue it, and especially if you pride yourself on being more thoughtful than your clownish next door neighbour.
The Welsh painter Shani Rhys James belongs to the first category. The enormity and the sheer visual seductiveness of her talent hit you full in the face the moment it confronts you. I defy any reader of this newspaper not to be pretty enthralled by her new exhibition of twenty or so oil paintings in Albemarle Street – even when you are separated from them by the thickness of a robust glass window.
Rhys James paints women - most often herself, sometimes wary, sometimes brashly naked – and she paints still lives, often of fairly ordinary domestic things such as baskets, colanders and pots and pans, though in her most recent work, she has taking to painting rather elegant bits of French furnishings too – a rather delicately worked rattan-backed chair, for example - and this serves to introduce a new and almost sombrely classicising restraint, if not a certain politesse, into her work. She often paints the two in combination, playing the inanimate off against the animate. She is a tremendous colourist, and the vases of flowers she paints – these paintings are full of flowers – have a kind of riotously spiky and rip-roaring energy about them – a bit like those thistles in that poem by Ted Hughes which were always ready to ‘burst open under a blue-black pressure’. There’s something quite mad, wild and even thuggish about this work, such its total lack of restraint or decorum. It seems to be gulping at colour – oranges, flaring reds, brilliant yellows - like a cat going hell for leather at a great bowl of best Cornish clotted.
She lathers and slathers on the paint with a kind of unrestrained glee. No wonder the eyes of the model are always slightly bulbous with a kind of childish wonderment. They can’t really believe their eyes. They can’t really believe that the world of flowers is such a carnival for the eyes. And yet there’s something else in the way she paints eyes too, something which seems to set the human slightly at odds with what she is surrounded by. The face, often quite small, often peeks out, just off centre, from behind the jungle of flowers, as if it’s not quite worthy, or as if it’s not quite up to speed. There’s a touch of bewilderment in this female face, a note of self-apology. It’s not strutting in the way these flowers and these pots and pans are strutting. Even though it’s the brains around these parts, it feels, somehow, less, diminished, just a touch cast adrift. It can’t carry off its own identity with the same panache as a flower can. Flowers are just unapologetically themselves, non-stop, head-long. We gorge on them. We can’t believe that they’re quite this emphatic, quite this visually noisy. What’s a woman beside a flower? Who would have the temerity to contradict a flower when it’s in bloom to the extent that these flowers are in bloom?
Two studios. That’s the title of this show. And there is a difference of mood and manner between the works painted in her Welsh studio, and those painted in France. The Welsh paintings are dancing all night. It’s what they do. Over in France, the paintings go to bed earlier. They gnaw at their nails, they are more cerebral. They argufy. They look at books devoted to the masters of eighteenth century French painting, and they wonder about tradition, tonal values, laying black against grey and then what – o such abstract anxieties!
Back in the homeland, you paint as if you barely need to think at all. It’s just there, spurting. Everything comes out, wallop, just as it is.