Tuesday, June 28, 2022
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Daniel Culpan on Rachel Jones


What’s in a smile? A blissed-out revelation of teeth? A flirtatious curve unloosed from language? An arc of ambivalence drawn through a face? In Rachel Jones’s exhibition “SMIIILLLLEEEE,” the Essex, UK–based artist enjoined the viewer to read the mouth as a place where identities (racial, cultural) are spoken and silenced.

The opening room featured two large-scale canvases (each roughly five by eight feet) that exploded from the wall in monumental bouquets of intense color. Taking their name from the show’s title (as did all the pieces) and dated 2021, they were profusions of diffuse abstract shapes built up through layers of oil pastel and oil stick. In one, furious reds and volcanic oranges flowed into one another, their contours smoking away into black. Above, an island of indigo turned ink dark, wounded by a stripe of scarlet. The forms resembled a map of some weird internal landscape, as if to illustrate the mouth’s own liminal character—a threshold between inside and outside. As the eye tracked across the canvas, the lines became more urgent and roughly worked: clusters of yellow recalling the heads of marigolds shorn by the wind, blots of maroon leaking out into blue.

Jones’s technique—blending and shading each densely packed fraction of the canvas and blurring the line between drawing and painting—creates multiple frequencies of vibrating pigment. In the adjacent canvas, greens bloomed like algae amid patches of pale turquoise and ocher. Each shade existed within the same kaleidoscopic spectrum, equal among the surrounding planes of vividness. If there’s no hierarchy of color in nature, Jones seems to suggest, then why draw our own arbitrary and unconscious boundaries?

The artist has spoken of her interest in grills and gold tooth caps within Black culture as powerful statements of selfhood. Jones combines representations of these accessories with intriguing shifts of scale and proportion, creating a physical immediacy between the viewer and the works’ status as objects. A strip of canvas (about one foot high and seven feet long) was stretched taut and stapled low on a back wall. It portrayed a row of adorned teeth, as bright and startling as petals. Another set of stylized incisors, pastels smudged and fuzzy and outlined in frosted pinks, lay across the gallery floor, forcing the viewer into self-conscious proximity to the canvas as something both delicate and indelible.

Upstairs, in a smaller room, two more huge canvases formed vibrant portals, bookending a fireplace. In both, swatches of color—green, yellow, lilac—created frenetic patterns, while scribbled pinks hardened into the shape of molars. Roughly drawn circles were sketched over all this jangling iridescence. The next room was bisected by a central wall bearing huge red letters spelling son on one side and shine on the other. The words refer to a song by the London band SAULT, whose lyrics (“Let the son shine through my pain / Son, we will rise”) distill the powerful oral tradition within Black music (from spirituals and gospel to rap): the mouth as site of both protest and joy.

Ultimately, the artist’s mastery of pigment lent the exhibition its force. By assembling color within a pluralistic field of vision—bold, many-hued, unashamedly loud—Jones contrasted her palette against the silent pristine blankness of the gallery walls, proving that whiteness is never neutral, but is loaded with a history all its own.

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