Image: Rachel Jones: SMIIILLLLEEEE - A big toothy grin from a rising star
Rachel Jones portrait, 2021. Photo: Adama Jalloh
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Rachel Jones: SMIIILLLLEEEE - A big toothy grin from a rising star

December 14, 2021

Review by Ben Luke

Rachel Jones was one of the youngest artists in Mixing It Up, this autumn’s huge painting survey at the Hayward Gallery. The 30-year-old Essex-based artist also has a Chisenhale Gallery show coming around the corner and, ahead of that, this exhibition, SMIIILLLLEEEE, in one of Europe’s biggest commercial galleries. And no wonder there’s so much excitement about her: Jones is already a distinctive voice, creating ravishingly colourful works with intriguing subject matter.

Technically, Jones’s “paintings” are huge drawings, made with pastel and oil stick. The latter is paint mixed with a small amount of wax, formed into cylindrical bars, so you apply it in a way that resembles pastel or charcoal more than a oil paint-loaded brush. The oil stick-pastel combination is crucial to Jones’s effects. Pastel is dry and chalky, oil stick liquid and lustrous. She applies them one over the other to create a range of textures, disparate tones and modulated colours, forming patchworks of hues that lead to an all-over effect. I can’t help but see textiles because she applies the materials in broad hatching that evokes loose weaves. I emphasise these abstract, formal elements of her work first, because that’s what hit me when I first saw it. Only after a while does the underlying figuration emerge. And once you spot it, you can’t not see it. 

The clearest example in this show is a more than 2-metre wide work that’s only 30cm high. It pictures a set of teeth – like all the paintings here, it’s called SMIIILLLLEEEE – and the canvas is trimmed at the bottom to follow the uneven shape of the molars and incisors. Jones’s use of the mouth is both literal and metaphorical – it’s the site of pleasure and pain, we kiss, eat, talk and sing with it, but equally we shout and scream and violently expel things through it. 

In previous bodies of work, Jones has also reflected on teeth as a form of cultural expression in Black communities, in the form of tooth adornments like grills and gold caps. The mouth also seems to be a metaphor for the world within us, our emotional landscape. The teeth often provide only the loosest structure – they never contain the colours. Take just one in the painting I mention: within the molar shape are a line of white, below a jagged edge of blue meeting a field of peach, beneath a patchwork of crimson and sky blue.

But the paintings are also evocative of actual landscapes, too, resembling mountainous vistas as much as they do oral terrain. Jones emphasises this by including floral forms and patches of colour in which she mutes the hatching, breathing fresh air into the compositions. Elsewhere, there are circles, which interrupt the otherwise organic rhythms satisfyingly. Even within this group, you can see her art evolving, suggesting new directions.

The only mis-step is a text piece, in which Jones has painted the words “son” and “shine” in huge red letters on opposite sides of a white wall constructed in the middle of one of the galleries. A reference to Sault’s song, called Son Shine, it might bring the spiritual qualities of the song’s lyrics – “I think that God’s crying when it rains” – into Jones’s practice, which is an intriguing possibility. But it feels too thin in itself, out of sync with the pregnant ambiguity of her toothy abstractions. It’s a single bum note – and that Jones is still experimenting, even in a big commercial space, is encouraging. Other than that, this is hugely impressive stuff.

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