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Preview: Shani Rhys James exhibition comes to Newcastle

Welsh artist Shani Rhys James brings her exhibition of unsettling images to the University of Northumbria Gallery

Blue Top by Shani Rhys James
Blue Top by Shani Rhys James

There are people for whom wallpaper is background – the blander, the better – and there are people who go for what I might now call the Shani Rhys James effect.

You might not be familiar with the Welsh artist whose work has just gone on display at the University of Northumbria Gallery.

But she can certainly create an arresting image. Huge paintings feature anxious looking  women against backgrounds that yearn to be foregrounds.

These are women who have papered their walls in order to disappear – or maybe their anxiety stems from the fact that they have just moved in and had no say in the wallpaper choice.

I was reminded of The Little Shop of Horrors, the musical with a man-eating pot plant. Flamboyant floral patterns twist and turn with seemingly malevolent intent.

In Woman Smoking – the woman apparently modelled on the artist’s mother, who was an actress – the wallpaper is vivid red with a black pattern redolent of something you might imagine in Dracula’s castle.

Candelabra on Blue Wallpaper by Shani Rhys James
Candelabra on Blue Wallpaper by Shani Rhys James

The woman, in a black dress, almost looks part of it. No wonder she’s smoking. The tension is tangible. Mara-Helen Wood, who runs the   gallery, says the paintings have proved very popular in Newcastle, as they were earlier at the sister gallery at King’s Place in London.

And while you might not be able to rustle up the £24,000 needed to buy Woman Smoking, you can marvel at the drama and the technique.

The painting on the gallery brochure is called Shower Cap.

It features another fraught-looking female in an old-fashioned bath with an evil-looking pattern on the wall behind.

This painting you won’t see in the gallery. It was on show in London but proved too big to fit in here.

Apparently Shani Rhys James has a sense of humour. She told Mara of her delight at finding a large black candelabra in a French junk shop.

It was so hideous that she just had to have it. The result is that Shani’s poor stressed-out female subjects are dominated not just by the wallpaper but by muscular bathtubs and dangling, spider-like chandeliers.

Not that the artist can’t do beauty, though. There are some extraordinarily lush floral still lives, so heavy with paint that the blooms threaten to flop off the canvas, and a few less threatening interiors.

Flock Chair Red Carpet, for instance, invites you to approach in bare feet, casting cares aside. The thing is, you can’t get away from the fact that just around the corner, the wallpaper is  waiting to get you.

:: Shani Rhys James’s paintings are on show until August 23


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