BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 107

Shani Rhys James in Aberystwyth

Cassandra’s Rant
Ceredigion Museum - 17 January – 14 March 2015
Distillation – Thirty Years of Painting
The Gregynog Gallery, National Library of Wales - 14 February – 23 May 2015
The Spider, The Plants and the Black Black Cot, published by Dolpebyll Studio Press, 2015

Shani Rhys James is everywhere. There is Cassandra’s Rant, an exhibition of her automata at the Ceredigion Museum; Distillation, a major retrospective of her paintings at the National Library of Wales; and her new three-volume catalogue, The Spider, The Plants and the Black Black Cot, has just been published. And even on a day trip to Hay-on-Wye, there is her book, The Rivalry of Flowers, mounted on a little plastic stand in Richard Booth’s bookshop.

It is 2.25 pm on Saturday 14 February and the Council Chamber at the National Library of Wales is packed. There are only a few seats left. I move towards one in the third row, just in from the aisle. A diminutive, moon-faced woman breaks off from her conversation with an urbane, bearded gentleman to tell me that the seat is already taken. Her hand, hovering over the seat, guards its vacancy. It is Shani. She apologises again and resumes her conversation. I make my way to the back of the room to lean, with several others, against a large baize-topped table. How is your art? a young man asks a woman in black padded leather trousers and a large pink hat. Ah, she replies, I’m looking forward to my retrospective. From two side doors people clutching glasses of warm white wine and orange juice continue to surge in. The room is getting claustrophobic. The noise abates as the Library Director, Aled Gruffydd Jones, launches into his introduction. We’re not really very good at plurals or gender, the pink-hatted woman is whispering to her friend, as I make my escape.

The Library's Gregynog Gallery is empty until two women scamper in. I don’t want to sit through the speeches, do you? one of them asks the other. They both giggle conspiratorially. Scanning the walls I see many paintings I recognise. And yet how different they seem to when I saw them in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre last year. Here they are mellower somehow, less austere. The honey-tones of the varnished floor reflect their colours - reds, yellows and blues - like oil on the surface of puddles. I’d heard Gruffydd Jones talk about the ‘cleanliness’ of the hanging. Yes, it is clean. The paintings can breathe in this yellowy, soft light.

I take a seat on the sofa before three large cot paintings, noticing how the gallery’s floorboards mirror those in the paintings. In the corner of the gallery two little doors, Alice-in-Wonderland size, one marked with a capital F and the other a capital H, set off a myriad of associations. A man, the very spit of John Mortimer, sits down heavily on the sofa next to me. I stare at his trainers, strangely at odds with his cuff-linked shirt and spotted velvet coat. Then a young girl in a strawberry gilet runs into the gallery, white-blonde hair flying, followed by her father and mother, the latter carrying a small toddler. And the mirroring happens again. I watch as both children are stopped still, transfixed. A child’s eyes staring at a child’s eyes.

And the child, it seems, is always there. What a fillip of pleasure I got when I saw the A-board outside Ceredigion Museum advertising her exhibition of automata. I love automata – all that stiff lifelessness coming alive through the slow repetitive mysterious turning of cogs and gears. What did I expect? Making my way, on that grey Monday afternoon, past the Museum’s cabinets of musty curiosities to the exhibition gallery, the scene was being set for something delicious, something menacing.

I was glad to find the room unoccupied; even the invigilator had disappeared. Initially, the only sound I heard was from a screen mounted on a far wall. A rather stiltedly shot film was being screened featuring a little girl, with those same staring eyes. It was clearly Shani. Then, all at once, things started to happen. A vacant cot wobbled and jerked, a small pushchair rolled back and forth, a metal farthingale whirled, a red dolls' house lit up and, like some exacting, judgemental parent, a headless form in black bombazine began to tap a finger on a circular side table. Then the voices came. Layer upon layer of women’s voices reciting what appeared to be dramatic monologues. Every separate element was clamouring, shouting for attention. Me, me, me. Look at me. Listen to me. Notice me, me.

The menace I had anticipated wasn’t there. The room had been made too safe, too wedded to its function as the repository of those annual cosy amateur art shows to countenance the potential darkness these objects promulgated. But it wasn’t their fault. In all their creaking, rusty decrepitude I loved them.

Gruffydd Jones had described Shani’s collection of paintings as ‘family’. Yes, I thought. It is family, dysfunctional as it is. And it is familiar, certainly to me. Though there is little or no comfort here. There is an outer lushness – the clothes, the flowers, the wallpapers – delivered through an exquisite gorgeousness of paint. But the alienation, the profound loneliness of the figures it encapsulates, is excruciating to behold.

Back in the Gregynog Gallery, two perfectly coiffed grey-haired women are surveying one of the large cot paintings with their heads inclined to one side. Doing things on this scale, one of them is saying, must be very difficult. And she is so small, the other replies. Yet, when you look into things, her friend says, the arms and things are really badly painted.

I think about that metal finger tap tapping in the Museum.

Later, I encounter the same women in front of a series of large canvases of Shani in her studio. Oh, I like these, one says, now these I like.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.

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previous blog: Mary Lloyd Jones in Aberystwyth
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