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CHEW ON THIS: The Rise of Rachel Jones




In a thick cluster of emerging artists flexing their muscles in London’s January shows, Rachel Jones was certainly not one to miss. This prominent painter forcefully injects herself into the canon in her first London solo show through the ultimate injection of colour. What better way to access the visual register of Jones’ luscious compositions than within the pristine walls of Thaddaeus Ropac where she had no trouble standing her ground. Giving little room for the surrounding Dover Street galleries to contend with, her delectable pallet explores the explosive inner workings of our own pallet or the ‘mouth portal’, as noted by contributing poet Vanessa Onwuemezi.

A very aesthetic pamphlet indeed

Before you become busily whirled up into her colour drenched canvases the title quickly jolts you onto deciphering the toothy grins carefully carved into each work. You can almost hear the jolly ring when you sound out the elongated title…Smillleee. Suddenly coerced into a goofy grin and left wondering whether this prompted expression of happiness is genuine or not. Teeth are very much engrained in the lexicon of imagery adopted by Jones, as she explores the possibilities and connotations of the liminal space of the mouth where it stands as a boundary between the interior and exterior realm of the body. We can often displace gritting, screaming agony with blissful joy, and such opposing binaries somehow equally concur with the emotional landscape created here.

There is something quite sickly emerging from the dark black zone of this mouth portal…

Less of a toothy grin than a clenching grimace, Jones confronts our generational tendency to clutch at straws for forceful and rather performative positivity. She brings to focus raw realities that can be captured by the inner wash of crashing emotions inside the mouth. As she develops her practice and stamps her mark on the contemporary discourse, this indicative spectrum of feeling acts as a gesture of pleasure and pain. In an interview she notes there is also a deeper strain to this body of work, as a black artist where there is a culturally embedded fetishization of the mouth. The smile becomes a motif, an injection of her identity, a symbol of her strength. However, Jones also emphasizes that this is not a sole route into her work and that there is an entry point for everybody. The overall ambiguous and refreshed expressionist form allows for total accessibility, hence its seductive appeal. Despite being effectively an oral examination, there is nothing clinical to Jones’s practice here. She etches through the landscape of the mouth with a vibrant confidence and ambitious scale that is overall, utterly satisfying.

I make a conscious habit to initially neglect the bombardment of text that can accompany a show to allow the work to formally introduce itself. Such practice was definitely rewarding here as the zing of the canvases struck you with its confident immediacy. Before acknowledging a contextual framework, it almost seemed as though trying to see things was also unseeing the work. I felt like I was cheating in trying to decipher something. Ultimately Jones’s artistic punch comes from her enigmatic ability to encompass the entire colour spectrum through a complimentary and cohesive composition.

However, if we were searching for composed subject matter within her large stretches of wall canvases, all soon became clear with the long panoramic teeth. Rachel is mapping out the inner landscapes of our mouth and self through visceral and richly colourful expressions. Using oil sticks as her weapon, Jones’ rough jagged textures urge this violent overtone.

There are certainly existential themes being explored here through the very tangible sensory site. We don’t often see this medium being explored with such ambition and scale whilst also being beautifully abstracted.

Super low down for a large wall piece, but truly worth getting on your knees to interrogate further.

Aware of such oomph in her work, she actively considers the need for breathing room between each canvas, noting

“It’s very important that there is a sense of balance and that there are moments where the eye can rest. There have to be periods within the painting where the movement allows you to linger or to pause, so that it’s not constantly like an onslaught.”

Rachel Jones
Words and phrases…

As previously noted, text is a contentious element to contemporary shows and can often go as far as to block our view. However, this collaborative fusion between art and poetry only enriches our experience and fills any gap between the dynamic flow of work and ideas.

“The porous orange, poured and drunk, then earth tone cut with fresh relief of green”. Her words are so literal and flow in a manner that you can literally go through the motions of Jones’ work like a poetic sequence.  “And violence of opening wounds a tooth slice, a jagged rip, heavy lined expression glorious as the sunshine hits us”


Onwuemezi’s reflexions flowing like a train of thought became truly illuminating, bringing us closer to the present moment. An infusion of practices I would hope to see more of in the future.

There is also something topographically hinting from the surface of this work, resembling perhaps a heat map. Her formulation of a dynamic terrain suggests the inside of the mouth as a site that holds much depth, especially emotively. Where artists typical work upon the body as a whole through clutching hands and distorted facial expressions, Jones instead zooms in to this micro site on the body that forces us to consider not just how we outwardly express ourselves, but also the natural tendency for forced composure despite what is being held in. The aggressive zigzag strokes almost evoke an out-of-control heartbeat line that is working into overdrive. Or perhaps explosive rashes of aggression, yet carefully uplifted through a rather primary pallet.

Slightly awkward canvas edge, perhaps tooth shaped?

However, when I stepped back from the piece shown above (it seems they all share the same title Smiiillleee?) the deep red and the yellow circle led this less toothy piece to formulate what could almost be an abstract sunset or warming landscape piece that curves off with the awkward bottom hem. There are both glimpses of bright happiness but also rashes of violence and suggestive aggression. Again, pointing back to how the inner workings of the ‘mouth portal’ can hold so much by both skill of concealing convulsing pain whilst also being the natural spotlight for beauty, superficial happiness, and performative emotions. There is an organic flow to her pallet with deep reds and earthy greens which equally create a less clinical, more rhythmic cohesion across her works.

Not your typical wall text

The contention between the site-specific words SON and SHINE that confront you against one of her smaller tooth studies immediately shift the dialogue of the show. The wholly satire title SMIIILLLEEE is further punctuated by this slapstick red font again addressing toxic positivity. The writing shifts the tone and whilst not necessarily owning a clear role in this show, it certainly brings it back to this theme of manufactured, Illusionist joy.

Slightly lazy wall text but I like that it wasn’t on view in the exhibition rooms it didn’t overtake the curatorial experience as so often text can engulf our understanding of the show.

Although this show is not a complete trench for false positivity, it merely is forcing light on what can be done and undone at the site of the ‘mouth portal’ it can mend relationships, break hearts, warmly smirk or quietly clench. For me it serves as a reminder to relax one’s jaw, swallow, and allow the natural contagious smile to take over.

Imogen Haisman

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