In February I went to visit the artist Shani Rhys James to talk about her work ahead of her forthcoming exhibition in London. I had been asked to write the introduction to the catalogue so I was excited to see both the new work and her workspace. I arrived at Welshpool station to find Shani welcoming me on the platform. She is small like me; it must be our Welsh blood. Her husband, the artist Stephen West drove us to their remote cottage in the country. They live in an old farmhouse, with outbuildings and barns converted into workshops. A carved, moss-covered stone dog with the snarl of a gargoyle guarded the path to the studios. I asked if it was medieval but no, it was one of Stephen’s sculptures beautifully transformed by its living coat of green.
On the train journey up I’d tried to prepare for our meeting by reading a book about self-portraits. Something about the motion of the train and my state of mind, transformed my notes into poems. I had begun a sort of meditation on ‘The Arnolfini Marriage’ by van Eyck which was reproduced in the book, when my peace was interrupted by three girls who’d got on the train and begun to talk very loudly non-stop. It was impossible to ignore them and so I found myself writing down as much of what they said as I could in the middle of my poem. The resulting poem is a savage lovechild; the offspring of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’ and Larkin’s ‘Whitsun Weddings’ but peppered by foul language. The traditional subject matter of my attempted poem is smeared with the present like ordure.
It may seem that recording what happens in the accidental moment like this has more of a relationship with Andy Warhol’s obsessive taping of every conversation he had, than with a painter’s work which is created in the isolation of a studio. Yet all of these speak to human attempts to pin down existence, to hold past and present in some sort of fixed state; via film, words on paper, pigment on canvas, sound tape and now increasingly by various digital means and mobile phones. This same impulse is there in Shani’s many self-portraits and also in those works where she recreates, records and retranslates scraps of memory via the family hoard of old photographs and stories, and her own imperfect childhood recollections. I say imperfect because all of our recollections of childhood are layered with the distortion of our half-formed perceptions and then with the onion layers of time.
Recent events in Shani’s life have led her to make some difficult decisions about what she should paint and whether she should make the resulting pictures public. In an essay that is soon to be published she explained, ‘As I worked on the first painting responding to my mother’s stroke – I wondered – was I painting me or her? It was done very quickly then I left the subject and went on to another still life. Tragedy is always private.’
It’s almost impossible to think about Shani’s work without thinking about mirrors and in particular women’s relationship to them. Of course, there is an entirely different thing going on between the painter and her refelction when she is creating a self-portrait than that when she is doing all those other ordinary tasks which involve looking in a mirror; washing her face, combing hair and so on. Indeed the chapter I was reading before the noisy girls got on the train was titled ‘A Craze for Mirrors’ and linked developments in the self-portrait with refinements in glass production, mirrors and the lens. These have led inexorably to the 21st century’s ubiquitous digital devices, something that is disturbingly evident in ‘Sky Portrait Artist of the Year’ where nearly all the competing artists take photographs of their sitter, then work from the screens of their iPads ignoring the person who is posing for them. When I was at Art College in the 1970s working from photographs was frowned on as it fixed the image in two dimensions, producing a sort of flatness that was unlike working directly from life. There again, it’s been argued that since the Renaissance, all those perfectly detailed and perfectly in-perspective paintings by van Eyck, Vermeer and Canaletto to name just a few, were created with the help of the camera obscura so the ruling against using photographs was somewhat misguided. Indeed Degas, Sickert and a host of other 19th and 20th century artists used photographs to produce their work. In the 1970s the ability to draw and use colour effectively was still seen as an important skill for those studying art and entry to Art College was judged upon the submission of a portfolio of work rather than qualifications such as A levels, but at the same time the message was that both easel painting and representative art was dead and would remain so indefinitely. Yet somehow many artists carried on regardless; among them Paula Rego, Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Peter Blake, and in Wales, Mary Griffiths, Kevin Sinnott and of course, Shani Rhys James, all of them creating works that are vital and energetic and meaningful – each proving that the rumoured death of painting was just that, a rumour.
Read Jo Mazelis’s poem, ‘The Arnolfini Marriage Interrupted’, here.
Jo Mazelis is a prize-winning novelist, short story writer, poet, photographer & essayist. Her debut novel Significance (Seren, 2014) won The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize in 2015. Her first collection of stories Diving Girls was short-listed for Commonwealth Best First Book & Welsh Book of the Year. Her latest book, a collection of short stories entitled, Ritual, 1969 (Seren, 2016), was long-listed for the Edge Hill Prize & shortlisted for Wales Book of the Year in 2017.
© Jo Mazelis, 2018.