The Rivalry of Flowers

Shani Rhys James
Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 2, 2013
No votes yet

Includes contibutions from William Packer, Francesca Rhydderch and Edward Lucie-Smith.

A book of new paintings and works by Shani Rhys James, one of Britain’s leading and most distinctive artists. Her latest work has developed a lighter palette to deal with new subjects of flowers and colourful patterned wallpaper backgrounds. These themes of domesticity are not anodyne however, but informed by ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story about the plight of women in the home. Rhys James’s paintings continue her exploration of the position of women in society, and in particular how women can be imprisoned by consumerism and the domestic environment.

The 52 colour images in the book include photographs of a new development in Rhys James’s work, automata based on the motifs of past paintings. The paintings are accompanied by a Foreword by the artist and critic William Packer, a perceptive interview of Rhys James by Francesca Rhydderch, in which the artist discusses her background and her interest in the position of women, and an essay by Edward Lucie-Smith which explores her paintings in an art history context. Produced to accompany a touring exhibition, this is a comprehensive introduction to the latest work of a fine painter.

User Reviews

Anonymous's picture

The Rivalry of Flowers New Welsh Review

No votes yet

"Anne Price-Owen explores these wars of the posies where the enemy of woman is a flower, her mother or the wallpaper"

Readers familiar with the work of Shani Rhys James will doubtless welcome her latest book, The Rivalry of Flowers. Her previous, lavishly illustrated The Black Cot (Gomer, 2003) gave us generous insights into her paintings concerning womanhood, many of which compromised her touring exhibition of the same name. Her new publication perpetuates that pattern by complementing her duel exhibitions in London’s Kings Palace Gallery (and opening at Aberystwyth Arts Centre this November) and the Martin Tinney Gallery, Cardiff.
James Packer gives an overview of the work in the Forward, and admires the enviable reputation and awards she has gained despite being from Wales and peripheral to the London art scene. Edward Lucie-Smith’s contribution places her in the canon of self-portraitists whose art is deeply autobiographical. Comparing her with a catalogue of (mostly male) artists, he concludes: ‘Patriarchy, still pretty much alive and well in the art world, despite the recent gains made by women artists, has something to fear from the work of Shani Rhys James.’ ‘That mechanism they call the heart’ forms the central core of he book, where Francesca Rhydderch’s interview with the artist focuses on the paintings. Rhys James’ articulate responses to the searching questions confirm her interest in literature and drama and their influences on her work.
The titular rivalry is multivalent. Initially, it refers to the relationship between the artist and her mother, because her ‘work explores the mother-daughter connection… there is no privacy.. there are no roles that women, as both mothers and daughters, are expected to play in society.’ Sometimes Rhys James mimics her mother in ‘Purple Flock’ (2007), where the girl pushing the doll’s pram is wearing her mother’s high heels. In ‘Mam a Merch’ (2006), the artist is both mother and daughter, an interpretation substantiated by the painter’s clothes and the lookalike child. Thus, mother/child relationships are interchangeable, implying role reversal. Moreover, flowers, being ‘symbolic of woman’s sexuality’, also allude to the rivalry between women and flowers. She describes the wild flowers in her garden as ‘anarchic’, yet in designs for wallpaper ‘we make… very formal designs… we tame flowers, we constrict them… they become very rigid and fettered.’
Expanding on the feminist aesthetic, Rhys James references two classical texts where the female protagonists escape from loveless marriages. Treated by their husbands as inferior, doll-like creatures their only creativity involves children, the house and its décor. Ibsen’s The Doll’s House (1879) comes to mind, in the respective painted and photographic portrayals of Rhys James’ doll’s house.
But it’s on her largest paintings that this commentary hangs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist novel, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), echoes much of what Rhys James remembered about feeling trapped inside London’s grim bedsits which she shared with her mother on their arrival in England in 1962. Being far from her native Australia, her sense of rootlessness was compounded by impertinent lodgings with claustrophobic interiors and flock wallpapers. It is this era Rhys James considers after reading Gilman’s story about a woman trapped in her home who became fixated with the wallpaper’s vulgar, tangled flowers. Subsequently she fancied she could see women imprisoned in the wallpaper, constantly searching for an escape route ‘behind the main pattern’, which has come to resemble the bars of a cage.’ Their efforts resulted in them being strangled by the sinuous fetters. In her two huge depictions, ‘Yellow Wallpaper I’ and ‘Yellow Wallpaper II’ (183x183cm), the entire background shows the lurid wallpaper, its repeating pattern of chrysanthemums embodying a menacing guise in their apparent advance towards the artist standing at the right, facing the viewer. Her face is calm, passive, implacable - the only static form in the paintings. She is the flowers’ rival where black, writhing flower stems create strident, malevolent shapes that almost ensnare the women (see cover image). In the first composition , the flat, black-clad figure is the link between the floral wallpaper and the white jug of pale lilies in front of her. Even these, in their loose arrangement and star-like shapes are jagged and potentially threatening. However, being symbols of the Annunciation of Christian iconography, they possibly herald the liberation of the woman who seems pressed like a dried flower between the wallpaper and the cut flowers.
Flowers are the driving force in this publication. They demonstrate that despite the apparent superficiality of her subject, Rhys James is a politically charged artist. In titling a work ‘Kettled’ (2011), where the impasto marks suggest a stressed situation, she evokes a feeling of being hemmed in, thus displaying the consistency of this portfolio. But flowers are also emblematic of celebration, and Rhys James has much to celebrate in this book, including her sixtieth birthday. Is she tacitly announcing this fact by saying it with flowers?

Anne Price Owen for the New Welsh Review

04/09/2013 - 11:44