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 hits you full in the face the moment it confronts you. I defy any reader of this newspaper not to be enthralled by her new exhibition of twenty or so oil paintings – 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 and pots and pans, though in her most recent work she has taken 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 – her work is 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 "crackle open under a blue-black pressure". There's something mad, wild and thuggish about this work, such is its total lack of restraint. It seems to be gulping at colour – oranges, flaring reds, 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.
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