Rachel Jones: say cheeeeese review – mutating paintings put a grin on your face | Painting


Mouths speak, chew, swallow and spit. They kiss and they sing. Teeth chatter, grind and decay. They ache and they fall out. Mouths and teeth and lips recur in Rachel Jones’s work. The artist also wants us to think of the interior experience of being a black body, and what it feels like to be looked at in a largely white space. These are all parts of the story the artist tells herself while she’s working on her paintings. Whatever Jones has in mind, her work is largely improvised; a kind of painting as performance. There are things in her paintings I can’t experience and don’t have access to. Maybe this is true of all art.

Most of the work in say cheeeeese at Chisenhale was completed in the gallery, as Jones worked on a group of small irregular paintings and on a big, wonky, irregularly shaped length of unstretched canvas. Other works were trimmed to size and tacked directly to both sides of a freestanding wall, and yet more are stretched and hung in the usual way. For the first time in many years the gallery windows have been exposed, letting the daylight in. Usually, Chisenhale is a darkened, concrete-floored bunker.

Jones has enjoyed a rapid ascent. She was born in 1991 and brought up in London. Since leaving college in 2019 she has been picked up by the international Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, and was included in the Hayward’s Mixing It Up show last year. These and other exhibitions mark a swift move up from her first solo exhibition at the do-it-yourself London artist’s space Jupiter Woods just a few years ago.

The execution is rapid and freeform … say cheeeeese (2022).
The execution is rapid and freeform … say cheeeeese (2022). Photograph: Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Things are happening everywhere all at once in say cheeeeese; larger things and smaller things, nothing ever quite complete but all of it coalescing into a kind of fractured all-over composition. This is familiar territory but Jones takes it to a place of her own. Every time I think I see a jumble of stuff come together into a figure – a bit of torso or a waist or an arm or a silhouette – it’s off again, running away from me. Is this a landscape with plants or a shirt patterned with foliage worn by someone walking through a flower market, or is it neither of these things? Was that a lemon that just went by? Are these puce-coloured knees and a stretch of belly under a halter top? A patch of snaggly brown drawing looks like an unravelling pattern on a jumper. Then come the seismographic judderings, a green turban, the face of a dog, though I may have imagined the dog. An area of ferocious green disintegrates against orangey red, hot ultramarine and cold cerulean blue, comic-book cells distorting like a car’s panels after a collision.

I catch myself anthropomorphising and seeing pictures in the half-completed shapes. I am cued-in to look for the teeth, the lips, the flowers. I find parts of bodies where there might be none, and end up dismissing it all as my own projection. A little bit of this over here, a dabble of that over there. Fill up the corners or let them alone? Decisions, decisions. Let the process do the talking, follow the way the pastel grazes the nub of the primed canvas and goes all gravelly, and how the oil stick – like a giant lipsticky crayon – skids and slews about. Warming up as it glides, the oil stick lubricates its own journey across the canvas. Then we’re off again, carried by the scurrying, juddering pastel and oil-stick lines, which sometimes look like impatient indecipherable signatures and at other times like repetitive marks beating out a kind of rhythmic, looping tattoo, through powder-puff pinks and acid greens, flat colour and overlaid colour, shading and shuffling, scribbling and wrenching, wallowing and scrabbling. Clunky passages lead to fluid exuberance, and the execution is rapid and freeform, one thing leading to another, and then another. Areas of almost flat colour peter out at the edges or get outlined and reworked, the line straying off to describe sprays of foliage or the surface of water. Then we’re down in some sort of gulch, in a graveyard of tombstone teeth.

Painting as performance … say cheeeeese (2022).
Painting as performance … say cheeeeese (2022). Photograph: Chisenhale Gallery, London. Courtesy of the artist.

Positive and negative space flip-flop and the drive and energy is palpable and contagious. If I’m not careful I’ll soon want to pick up a crayon and start doing it myself. But it’s a risky business, working like this. Go at it too hard and the whole thing could easily get clogged. Jones lets her hand lead the touches of oil-stick and pastel. The density and colour strength of her materials have a consistency across the surface, and there’s very little letup. The big question must be knowing when to stop. How does she know when she’s done? The overall effect is like watching an animation in which forms and shapes keep mutating in a kind of haptic stream of consciousness. I can imagine Jones’s art remade as tapestries or as hand-drawn animations.

It all keeps coming at you and it could go on for ever. Perhaps what they feel like is the point. And you feel with your body, not just the eye. There is a sense that parts of one painting could easily migrate to another, signalling a sort of inexactitude. Then again, all the works here, large and small, have the same title, and they’re all part of the same improvised mashup. Less a show of paintings, more a DJ set, and none the worse for that.

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