For her latest London exhibition, Rachel Jones brings not just paintings but words and music references to scaffold her work in the here and now. Accompanying the show is a booklet of new writing by Vanessa Onwuemezi; on the first floor of the gallery, a free-standing wall carries the monumental text SON on one side and SHINE on the other – a reference to a track on the recently released album Untitled (Rise) by the prolific and enigmatic band, Sault.
This entourage deflects the viewer from the danger of a self-indulgent engagement with the works and alerts us to the position from which Jones speaks. The paintings here, all titled SMIIILLLLEEEE, 2021, are made using the intense oil stick and oil pastel that she has made her signature medium. Embedded in their seething compositions are different treatments of the motif of teeth. The sensual, as well as the symbolic, power of the mouth and teeth have become the way the artist uses to speak about her ethnicity, and her experience of being a Black woman in the world today.
The mouth is the threshold to the inner self; it is the site of pleasure, but also the site of pain; the mechanism through which we literally articulate ourselves, the organ through which we breathe – or not. Jones also references the gold teeth and ‘grills’ that are part of Black culture and of hip hop culture in particular.
“(…) Smile contains the knowledge of what happened here. Mouth-portal into a bottomless depth, adorned with cheap and happy flowers. Joy. Undone tooth by tooth. Mouth-portal, numinous circle through which exterior becomes interior. The interior that escapes the word, escapes into a beyond black, undone into a frayed noise, a knowing static.” Vanessa Onwuemezi
Jones’ paintings are thrilling at scale – she acknowledges a love of Abstract Expressionism – leading the eye in a darting journey across the canvas. One zeroes in on areas of intensely worked marks, blocks of urgent, zingy hatching, or areas of colour so hard worked that she has gone through the paper. On that particular painting she has highlighted the holes in the paper with a smear of red, making them sore. Then, zooming out, you try to capture the overall composition, letting the imagination run to suggest a cave, or a reef of brilliant corals. In this abstraction there is the powerful illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. You can disappear into dark spaces beyond the bright surface. The unstretched canvasses have an immediacy and raw energy to them that make the stretched ones almost seem too polite. The smaller works in the show are all unstretched – and they punch way above their comparatively diminutive weight. In the first-floor gallery, a long, narrow and uneven remnant of canvas bears a row of teeth, hung so low it feels as if they are literally biting down on the wall. The slight ripple in the pinned canvass animates the work; the electric blue highlights make it crackle with electricity.
Rachel Jones has introduced another motif, flowers, into her lexicon – though they are often hard to discern, so enmeshed are they in the velvety surfaces. When you pick them out, they are schematic, with a distinctive, circular centre and a few petals radiating from it. But these flowers are ghostly in their presence, allowing the blocks of patterning and saturated colour to play the lead role. And though the works are referred to as paintings, and certainly operate in that register, they are in fact more properly drawings. The artist has said she prefers the speed, directness and greater spontaneity of drawing.
Let the son shine
Through my pain
We will rise
Sault, Son Shine, 2021
The text work SON SHINE, hand painted in red caps, is an unexpected element. Writing in The Guardian, Alex Petridis described the lyrics of the Sault track of the same name as being equally appropriate to a gospel choir or a street protest – and that duality seems to be a part of the sense that this text brings to the show.
In March next year, Rachel Jones will open a show of new work at the Chisenhale Gallery in London. The artist grew up just along the road in Whitechapel, and I for one am excited to see how she will grab that big, tough space – no doubt she will make it triumphantly her own.
Thaddaeus Ropac, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1S 4NJ. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 10.00–18.00. Exhibition continues until 5 February 2022. www.ropac.net