Shani Rhys James is an artist who produces intensely personal work of immense power. Her paintings initially appear free and gestural but actually are very tightly constructioned, nervy and full of acerbic electricity, possessed of an almost corrosive bite. Her ‘subjects’ are the paint and its application (it is obvious that she finds joy in the sheer sensuality of this), as much as the still-lives and real lives which she shows. How ‘real’ the latter are is debateable, for they are dreamlike, or at least seen almost as staged tableaux. Although what the artist depicts is the everyday, it seems suffused with threat and danger, even cruelty. The eyes of her characters, even those of children, are pregnant with alarm or fear. When they look out from the canvass they are suspicious, or disturbed by what they see in our real world but the one they inhabit looks no more comfortable and even the portraits seem to suggest that the subjects have been, if ever so slightly, flayed.
Although it is tempting to see a parallel with the works of Paula Rego (and certainly there are profound similarities in the narrative compositions) the similarity is one of subject rather than treatment, for Rhys James’ work has a level of mordancy, underlying threat and violence more akin to Anna Maria Pachego and, without exaggeration, even Goya. Hers are turbulent paintings in which, even when her characters are still, seem to suggest that what we are witnessing is the aftermath of a disturbance, one which at any time may be repeated. The colours enhance the general threat (they are in a high key, her subjects seem fevered, an effect born of the firelight-scorched fleshed reds against sharp whites) her paint application too conspires to affect anxiety within the viewer. The paintings are not at all calculated to achieve very easy viewing. Yet her works are widely collected and eminently collectible, their ostensible indigestibility notwithstanding, and one asks oneself why this is so. The answer must in part lie in sheer craftsmanship, but really it is the extent to which they are reflections of the human condition. Rhys James was awarded the Jerwood Prize for Painting in 2003.