Saturday 24 August 2019

What lies beneath: Head Against Orange by Rhys James

Head Against Orange by Shani Rhys James, 2013, oil on linen, 60 x 60 cm
Head Against Orange by Shani Rhys James, 2013, oil on linen, 60 x 60 cm

Niall MacMonagle

Brad Pitt has a whole lot going for him but he suffers from prosopagnosia. "Face blindness" is an odd affliction. Next time Brad ignores you remember that he can not remember faces. In extreme cases prosopagnosics have difficulty recognising not only family members but even themselves. It must be the pits.

Faces fascinate. Just think of Ingrid Bergman in close-up, her glistening eyes or sour, snarling Nidge. We drink in details. Eyes, eyebrows, nose, lips, cheeks, chin. And artists, in every age, have painted portraits. A Velázquez is different from a Barrie Cooke. This painting by Australian-born artist Shani Rhys James is very much of our time.

The colours in this full-on, in-your-face image are unnatural but there's no mistaking the powerful, human expression. That intent stare, tight lips, dark shadows beneath troubled eyes, the whitish, greenish sclera, the tight-fitting hat announce a very definite presence. An orange background, the rapid, loose brushwork add urgency. One critic summed up her work as "mad, wild and thuggish".

In 1963 when Rhys James was nine she and her actress mother left Melbourne for London. Many mother-daughter or self portraits feature in her work as does elaborate flock wallpaper which she remembers from the grim hotel where they first stayed.

Now living in rural Wales, her working day begins when she climbs into her paint-spattered overalls at 9am. Standing before the canvas, oval hand mirror in left hand, in her right a brush she paints, walks back, squints, rubs out.

"See, the thing with a painting is, if I knew how to do it I wouldn't do it. If I knew what I was going to do, I wouldn't do it."

But the finished work is always powerful. "Feeling alone, feeling misunderstood is what I work on" and she adds that her work has "a sweet sadness", that sweet sadness of humanity.

Shani Rhys James's 'Head Against Orange' is on view at VUE, Ireland's Contemporary Art Fair, featuring over twenty galleries, including Hillsboro Fine Art, at the RHA from 31 October - 2 November, 11am - 6pm.

Sunday Independent

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