Standing in front of a Rachel Jones painting is like letting her take you on a journey through her emotional landscape, with her skillful use of color and composition as a guide.
One of the artist’s goals is black interiority, accessible somewhat literally through the frequent inclusion of mouths and teeth. Sometimes these elements are visible and sometimes they are immersed: In works like lick your teeth so that they grip (2021) – currently featured in the Hayward Gallery’s survey of contemporary painting, “Mixing It Up” – teeth and mouth turn into hills, rocks, valleys and mountains. Circles and flowers can represent grids, but they can also be trees and waterfalls, such is the “magic eye” effect of Jones’ work. Unique and seductive, his abstractions manage to convey the infinite psychological landscape that exists in oneself.
“I like the idea that you can create works of art from a place of feeling, and that’s reason enough to do something, because I think it’s the truth,” a she explained. “Everything that is produced comes from some kind of desire or need, and all of those things are emotional and physical reactions in our body.”
Jones appeared on a group show in the fall of 2020 on Thaddaeus Ropac alongside Alvaro Barrington, Mandy El-Sayegh and Dona Nelson. Ropac signed it soon after, and the attention of institutions and collectors followed, resulting in intense demand for his work over the past two years. Another 30-year-old artist might be overwhelmed by such a rapid rise, but the Jones remained focused on creating a life best suited to doing work.
His evolving practice is exhibited in “SMIIIILLLEEEE”, on display at the Ropac gallery in London until February 5, occupying most of the large space. The exhibition is a combination of paintings of all sizes, some on stretched canvas and others hanging directly on the wall, ranging from a few inches to several feet.
The large-scale works for which Jones is known are present, as are a few riffs on her practice to break the formality of the gallery space. Upstairs, there is an intervention on a wall, with the words “Son Shine” written on either side. One work is a sticker on the floor and others are placed at different heights, some very low on the wall, attracting viewers, encouraging them to immerse themselves in the work. You are encouraged to lean forward, lean back and move closer to the paintings, creating a conversation between the work and the viewer.
“I am very interested in placing my story and my relationship to painting within the work,” she told Artnet News. “It’s really meaningful to have people to question and reflect on these ideas. There have been so many black intellectual writers and poets who have been talking about these things for so long, and it’s great to be able to feel like you’re contributing to this conversation.
Jones works with oil sticks, and his process is both physical and emotional, related to an intuitive sense of composition and balance. “Every painting involves pretty much every color on the spectrum,” Jones explained. “It is very important that there is a sense of balance and that there are times when the eye can rest. There must be times in the painting where the movement allows it to linger or stop, so that it is not constantly like an assault.
Its marking, although layered and complex, has a sense of immediacy that makes it very readable. In some places the strokes are frantic and in others they are layered and blended, there is a sense of experimentation; Jones is getting to know his palette and seeing the progression is exciting.
“Colors can be energetic, or they can be toned down, they can ask questions, or they can be flirty, violent or harsh,” Jones said. “Using color becomes like a form of communication. In such moments, Jones communicates not only with the viewer, but also with herself: “All of these things that work together are something that happens creating the work with the feeling of following my nose and listen to my intuition, then wait for a point to feel that the painting has had enough and that it is holding.
“People are drawn to the way she communicates through color and a visual lexicon that oscillates between the concrete and the enigmatic,” her gallery owner, Thaddaeus Ropac, told Artnet News. “There is an intensity of joy and complexity in his works that instantly captivates you and holds you in their grip long afterward.” He has placed his paintings in institutions such as the ICA Miami; the Houston Museum of Fine Arts; Tate; Hepworth Wakefield, The Towner Art Gallery; and the UK Arts Council collection – “and that was before she painted the works which are now on display in her current exhibition at our London gallery,” he added.
The waiting list for works on view is long, according to Diane Abela, director of the Gurr Johns board, due to the quality of Jones’ work, but also Ropac’s clever management.
“Personally, I was just thinking, wow, this is something completely different, something that you haven’t seen in the art world,” Abela told Artnet News. She cited the institutional interest in her work, coupled with its affordability – prices are high but not inflated, figures around € 30,000 have been mentioned.
Jones herself is focused on the long game. An avid gardener, she also makes music and has “painted in silence only once when my batteries ran out”. She plays CDs and walks away from the grid while listening to entire albums, enjoying making the art a full body of work, as opposed to streaming online. She wants a quiet, but art-centered life, and is currently completing a teaching degree, which she sees as a practice to accompany a life as a designer. This uncluttered approach is what allows him to channel himself so completely into these complicated and consuming works.
“I’m excited to see the narrative develop and the form it takes visually, how it changes,” she said, “but I also look forward to being able to work with people collaboratively, because the painting is a very lonely practice, I really look forward to having the opportunity to build relationships while doing work.
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