By Gazelle Mba
Rachel Jones’s say cheeeeese (2022) – one of a series of new paintings, all of which bear the same title – offers a visual riposte to a central philosophical problem: how do we distinguish the self from others? It is a colourful, multi-layered painting composed of dynamic, rhythmic gestures loosely girded by recurring motifs that relate to, but do not dominate, the landscape background. The large, drooping flowers prominent near the top of the painting move between, and interact with, the rows of teeth found in the lower half of the work, while the profusion of richly coloured, abstract forms hints at a mode of unbounded expression beyond language.
say cheeeeese conjures the joys and discomforts of yielding to the examination of others. Flowers are notable for their polyvalent symbolic value. For some viewers, they might trigger a private world of half-forgotten memories, stories from the past or scraps of song lyrics. But, as recurrent motifs, the flowers and teeth also ask what it means to negotiate the boundary between internal and external. Teeth can be understood as a threshold between our insides and everything that is not (yet) part of us. For Jones, teeth seem to enliven the philosophical dimension of the body, suggesting how the myriad ways in which we use our mouths – from kissing to talking and eating – are freighted with meaning concerning where we begin and others end.
The painting’s title is a familiar command – one invested with the power to demand that the subject convey a particular impression, regardless of whether that conforms to how they actually feel. It follows then, that this is a painting concerned with appearances: a semiotics of the body undertaken in pastel. I read it as a prompt to think about the masks we wear each day, our daily shapeshifting. To think of what lies beneath a smile is to contemplate the discrepancy between our interiority and the ways in which we communicate with others: a look, a note, a painting. We might never be able to overcome the boundary separating interior from exterior, self from other, but say cheeeeese evinces painting’s power to evoke intangible psychic states and, in so doing, reminds us of our ambiguous relationship to the world.