Paintings by Shani Rhys James
Shani Rhys James has issues with identity. Australian born, a country she claims no one can rightfully claim as their own, she has lived in Wales for the pasty thirty years, a small celtic nation with a colourful history all of its own. The UK art scene refers to her as a Welsh artist, something she only reluctantly accepts. For her, identity is too complex, too opaque to be simply accepted without due investigation. James, whose brand new exhibition Florilingua is now viewable at the Millennium Centre in Wales, instead investigates the issue deeply through the aperture of art.
Shani Rhys James, through her art, has one eye on the past and the other on the future. Her paintings, a large body of which are portrait pieces, bear the influences of the 19th century French artists, such as Degas and Matisse. We can see Degas’ compositional experiments and framing techniques, with her subjects often aligned to the left or right of the picture, and we can see Matisse’s arabesques providing a backdrop. We can also see the wild, abstract influence of De Kooning, as well as the stark, almost grotesque realism of Lucien Freud. Yet, rather than the result being a nightmarish mishmash, or a haphazard conglomeration of the evolution of the portrait, there is a beautiful uniformity to her work; one that is fragile, one that is searching – searching for identity.
But James also looks to the future. Like many of her peers, she is an installation artist as much as she is a painter. Her latest exhibition will contain chandeliers, wallpaper, flowers, and videos. It will be an all-encompassing multimedia event crammed into a deliberately small space so as to create a ‘sense of claustrophobia.’ Her figures, which often stare out grimly at their spectators in poses similar to Munch’s haunted figures, are often harrowing, accentuating their own sense of claustrophobia in their own bodies. James brings them close to her audience. She invites discourse on the nature of identity and, ultimately, asks the question, should our roots dictate who we are?