Wild floral wallpapers, gigantic bouquets, dark chandeliers and decorated vases all belong in the paintings of acclaimed Welsh artist Shani Rhys James. And she now has a superb new solo show, titled ‘What Came of Picking Flowers’, at Cardiff’s Martin Tinney Gallery. Inspired by an old fairy tale, while referencing contemporary life, lockdowns and continued violence against women, Rhys James has painted images which are both haunting and uplifting, presenting magic in the mundane.
It’s been an absolute honour and privilege to write the catalogue essay about Shani Rhys James’ powerful new paintings, which I am sharing here:
What Came of Picking Flowers
There’s an old Portuguese folk tale in which three young women disappear, one by one, after picking flowers from the same meadow. When their brother sets out to find them, he discovers his sisters living inside beautiful castles. But, cursed for their curiosity, they are trapped by monsters and marriage, bound by spells in need of breaking. For her show, Shani Rhys James has taken this story’s title, ‘What came of picking flowers’, which resounds through her tableaux of perceptive female protagonists and beautiful bouquets, confined yet thriving, within interior spaces.
Immediately captivated by the tale’s “darker connotations to the idea of flowers”, Rhys James further reflected on the “act of cutting and arranging them in a vase, thus shortening and ending their life”. In the symbolic, vanitas-styled ‘Shadows on the table’ (2022), eight magnificent tulips have opened fully, expanding against a hot, Indian yellow background. But there’s something stifling about this scene, which is further stained by the black shadows which creep across the too-white tablecloth, foretelling the flowers’ imminent end.
Female-centred family drama, which drives countless fairy tales, is also at the heart of ‘White Jug / Pink Lilies’ (2019). The painting’s subject is the artist’s late mother, an avant-garde actress, whom Rhys James counted as “an inspiring muse”. Here, she stares in bewilderment off to one side, drawing the viewer’s eyes to a vase of fragile funeral lilies. It’s an image marked by mourning; having suffered from a stroke several years earlier, Rhys James’ captures the loss of her mother’s former self, while inviting the viewer to contemplate the brevity of life for all of us.
Rhys James takes herself as her own muse, too. In psychologically-charged self-portraits, including ‘Self Isolation with white platter’ (2020), there is a sense that the artist is waiting, like so many fairy tale princesses locked up in towers, evoking the ominous atmosphere of covid-induced lockdowns. But she is also watching, hands clasped, while seated at a table upon which is placed a huge, decorated dish.
Domestic objects and the accoutrements of femininity, from hairbrushes and handheld mirrors to sharp scissors, take on subversive power in Rhys James’ paintings. Covered in flowers, this significant platter – which features in many of her most important works – inserts a painting within the painting, pointing to the sitter’s identity as an artist who weaves rebellious meaning into feminine crafts.
Another story threaded into this exhibition is that of Madame Bovary who, in Gustave Flaubert’s 19th century novel, feels confined by the banality of her marriage. “It’s about the entrapment of women again”, Rhys James has explained. “Madame Bovary has aspirations – she fantasises about the novels she reads, she’s romantic, she craves excitement, and wants to decorate the house with beautiful things. I’m interested in women who can’t perform on the world stage, so they sublimate their energy into the house, the gilded cage”.
In ‘Madame Bovary’ (2019) the protagonist is wrapped in a flower-covered kimono, as she gets ready for bed. On the red table before her is a sharp-toothed black comb, while the room is covered in thickly painted green wallpaper. There’s an atmosphere of menace and impending danger to this imaginative scene, in which Bovary’s own shadow, which frames her head, appears as a long mourning veil; meanwhile, there’s an implication of arsenic in the lurid green, referencing her suicide, and ultimate escape, by poison.
In another powerful, and relatable, vision of modern relationships, ‘iPHONE’ (2021) presents what Rhys James refers to as the “dislocation between people, even when they are together”. A figure under the covers, spellbound and illuminated by his screen, exists in a virtual reality, which leaves the female figure, standing bedside, isolated but observant in the room’s darkness. Fingers splayed, she appears ready for bed but on edge, charged by the breakdown of communication, her next move uncertain.
Holding up her magic mirror – to reflect sharp-eyed, watchful women – Rhys James is continually “looking under the skin” of her heroines, whose everyday dramas and choices define their lives. “’What came of picking flowers’ is a tale which dramatises “the vulnerability of women who dare to go out into a field. As a woman you have to be so strong”, she has mused. Eventually freed from their curses, the three sisters emerge not as victims but survivors, just like Rhys James’ own cast of characters, including herself.
Although trapped inside her house and studio during the pandemic, the painter loved this period of time, which she spent telling stories through paint. While it’s clear that the cut flowers in her compositions are destined to deteriorate, they are also, as she has said, “temporarily uplifting, a burst of life in the face of tough times, from loss to lockdowns”. Acting as a reminder that death, for all of us, is inevitable, the flowers in this body of work nevertheless flourish inside their frames. As Rhys James points out, “Painting is about life”.
You can see Shani Rhys James’ paintings, and the artist at work in her studio, in this brilliant BBC episode of ‘What Do Artists Do All Day’: