Friday, April 20, 2018


I was at the private view of Shani Rhys James exhibition This Inconstant State yesterday evening at the Connaught Brown gallery in Mayfair. If you're in London do not miss this show. If you're far away, look up some of her work on this BBC video.

It resonates deeply for me, strikes chords I am in tune with. Shani salutes Van Gogh and Soutine and the Fayum portraits of ancient Roman Egypt but without a trace of hero worship or imitation, simply out of comradeship. She is very much her own person, with an uncompromising gaze focused intently on what is around her but through a lens which reflects her interior world. The eyes are all important in her paintings, they have an unquiet, absent expression which at the same time manages to be wholly engaged in the present moment. I love Shani's strong, bold sense of space and drama, her rejection of prettiness and sentimentality - even her flowers are free from 'floweriness'. Yet there is tenderness in all her work and intense empathy with others. Two stunning paintings of Shani's mother in bed (she has suffered a stroke) are almost unbearable in their unvarnished truthfulness from both sides of the trauma: the mother's, and the daughter who is looking on, and looking after.

The colour red plays a dominant role in all the paintings, both as a formal element of design and an emotional key - emotional intelligence you could say - and the thick, sensuous paint seems to me like a fierce struggle to give flesh to memories or moments before they vanish - the paint as a sort of trap for ghosts....this inconstant state.

Shani Rhys James - Quinces 2017
Oil on gesso on board.
29 7/8 x 18 1/8 in. 76 x 46 cm
Connaught Brown
2 Albemarle Street London W1S 4HD

Shani Rhys James, Two Gourds 2017
Oil on linen.
39 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. 100 x 100 cm
Connaught Brown
2 Albemarle St.
London W1S 4HD

Shani Rhys James, Blue Top Orange Hairband, 2017
Oil on gesso on board.
24 1/8 x 24 1/8 in. 61 x 61 cm
Connaught Brown
2 Albemarle St.
London W1S 4HD


Beth said...

Such strong work! Thank you for your descriptions and comments, Natalie. Were there any drawings, or just paintings,?

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Beth, there are only paintings in this exhibition. But look up the links I gave and also watch the BBC videos about her work I got to know her via facebook, met her in real life at the Private Viw this week and like her very much as a person as well as as artist. She lives in Wales, her husband Stephen Weat is also a painter and sculptor.
I think you'll also be interested in this video of her from 2015:

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

That should have read Stephen West, not 'Weat'.

Vincent said...

I confess my first thought was “I wouldn't want any of those hanging on my wall”. But on reading that she arrived from Australia aged 9, and watching the short video, which showed her cheerful & far removed from the grim memories portrayed in paint, I felt an instant kinship, remembering the cold winter of ’63 but more particularly my own arrival in England from Australia in the summer of ’46, coincidentally a few months before the cold winter of Jan.’47. England was a shock, the war not long over, my grandmother disapproving, the food lousy. Couldn't be expressed in paint, I think.

Good on yer, Shani! Though I'd sooner have anything by N D’A on my wall.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Vincent, thanks for commenting. If all great art must be cheerful this would eliminate a huge proportion of masterpieces from every period and every style in art history. Of course we all have our own subjective perception of any artwork and my own response to Shani's work puts her up there among the greats.

The Weaver of Grass said...

All the war paintings (including Guernica) would be instantly forbidden if we couldn't hang any painting which showed the suffering and sadness in the world could we?
I love Paul Nash's war pictures -.
I also love Shani's work here - the sadness in those pictures would be impossible to put into words.
My son, Dominic (made out of words) suggested I come and look at your blog as he feels we have the same ideas about things. My blog is much more mundane - I am well into my eighties and really only write about my daily life. But that doesn't stop me admiring good painting. So thanks for these.