Theatre props & stage-sets.
Timelapse and video interviews
On creating work for her exhibition:
'The Black Cot', Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2004
An object itself might lead the way with a painting, such as the small pram found in a junk shop, which now sits in Rhys-James' studio.
'I did a little tiny painting four inches by four inches of the pram... I was thinking of not even having the child in it, just having the pram, but it's very difficult to leave just an object, for me. There's always this juxtaposition with found objects that trigger off paintings but then associate a person with it. I'm working from the imagination and maybe looking in a mirror for the face.'
'As I've gone on and on and on with the cot, Ive become much more free, much more loose with it. It's a very interesting thing, a cot, actually, because it has these bars, and yet we're putting babies in behind these bars because they're dangerous - to themselves.'
The composition - how much did you play around with it?
'I had a big figure here pushing the pram, then I had a mother behind, and then a child, and then I had a figure back here, and then I knocked out all of them and just had nobody, and then I put that little child in.'
'The pram is slightly sinister because you can't see what's in it... and there's also this play on scale - is it a child's pram, or an adult pram?... there's a slight Alice (in Wonderland) thing about the scale... and I'm interested in Alice as an anarchic little girl in rather grotty clothes who's forced into constraints.'
Approach to painting
In starting to paint these objects Rhys-James also engages with the quality and effect of the paint and the surfaces it creates.
'The beauty, the wonderful thing about painting, is that it's so immediate, it's so sensual, and there's this subconscious thing that you don't actually really know what you're doing. You sort of know what you're doing, you start off... but then there's a process of metamorphosis or change - they'll become something different. The paint has a life of its own, the paint has its own energy: you may come to it with an idea, but just by doing a mark, the paint becomes its own beast really... and you start creating your own little world - you know, should I have a door here? have a wardrobe? and will the wardrobe door be open? what will the floor be like?'
'...and then you've got the abstract elements of the paint - the way you're using the paint, you might do it thicker in some places, or thinner.. but I don't totally disassociate myself from the object I'm painting, where I think it's just abstract: it's abstract, but it's also a particular cloth (for example), and I want to get that feeling, that something particular of that fabric on that cot because it's a very familiar piece of cloth that I've used time and time again.'
The theatre props and stage-sets provide Rhys-James with a world of fantasy and magic transformation: even objects (a cot, pram, etc.) become characters in a play. She also draws on the shock of moving to London and experiencing dark, dingy rooms - places in which to act out these fantasies.
'Being brought up in the theatre, that was a kind of play my parents didn't include me in - but I had my own little game which was with my own fantasies... Seeing them (my parents) do things with costumes and plays and props - because they had props, and they were making little stage-sets - that's probably why I do things with props.'
'London was such a shock to my system - as a child going in to London - I'm still getting over it; because it was such a total and utter transformation from my childhood in Australia, a rural place... my experience of coming to London was being taken away from an amazingly aesthetic childhood, of architects and the Japanese influence of inside-outside buildings, natural flora and fauna... and then coming to London and having this whole thing of poverty, and bedsits. To my mind London isn't the centre of excellence, its the centre of hell!'
Other artists play a big part in Rhys-James' work, from the Old Masters to the present.
Taught by Gillian Ayers (gac.culture.gov.uk and tate.org.uk), amongst others, at St. Martins College of Art, London, where Rhys-James absorbed the abstract qualities of paint into her figurative style, enjoying paint for its texture, colour and energy.
Shani Rhys-James is clear about her influences, openly borrowing images from other artists in order to manipulate them in her own way. She sees a parallel between her own painting and installation art: it's simply the difference between using real objects (with installation art), and transforming these objects into paint. For example, Mona Hatoum's piece 'Incommunicado' (tate.org.uk) features a cot which Rhys-James began to use in her paintings.
Jan Svankmajer's Alice
As mentioned above, there is a fascination with the idea of scale - the size of people compared with objects - and Rhys James cited Jan Svankmajer's creation of Alice as a key influence (awn.com).
Louise Bourgeois (tate.org.uk )is an artist whose work also draws heavily on her own life-experiences, using all kinds of objects and materials to conjure atmospheric spaces.
Frances Bacon (tate.org.uk)
'It's very much to do with the way he (Bacon) deals with the London situation... and this idea of the solitary figure in a room is very much to do with Frances Bacon; also cage-like spaces, places of refuge - cots, beds, couches.'
Particularly his later works, where he uses the paint more loosely, enjoying the texture of paint on the surface of the canvas. Also Goya, Velazquez, and the way in which these artists paint stories figuratively while using paint in a bold and expressionistic manner.
More information on Shani Rhys-James
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click on images to enlarge
Objects can provide a starting point for paintings.
'Black Cot and Latex Glove', 2003
'Child with Pram', 2003
'The Pink Room', 2004
Shani Rhys-James' studio in mid-Wales, showing work from 'The Black Cot'.