Rachel Jones Disrupts Art Spaces with Stunning Yet Unsettling Abstractions

Aurella Yussuf
Apr 20, 2022 7:13PM

Portrait of Rachel Jones by Adama Jalloh, 2021. © Rachel Jones. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul.

If figuration was once generalized as political and abstraction as concerned purely with form, this was particularly true for Black artists in the U.K. and the U.S. who, in the mid- to late 20th century, were under pressure to produce socially conscious work that was invariably figurative. For Rachel Jones, the inverse feels accurate. Abstraction provides opportunity to circumvent the limitations placed on her subject matter, allowing the 31-year-old artist to speak to a Black interiority without being burdened by representation.

Born in East London, Jones has developed a distinct visual language to address topics such as race, class, and gender, without being limited by them. People, or human-like figures, have always featured in her work, but in her two recent solo shows, we see a shift to focus on disembodied features. Eyes, ears, and teeth were the central focus in Jones’s 2021 exhibition “SMIIILLLLEEEE” at Thaddaeus Ropac, and teeth appear again in “say cheeeeese” at Chisenhale Gallery, currently on view through June 12th.

Rachel Jones, installation view of “say cheeeeese” at Chisenhale Gallery, 2022. Photo by Andy Keate. Courtesy of the artist.


When Jones first visited Chisenhale Gallery in preparation for her first institutional show, she immediately knew that she wanted to expose the building’s Crittall windows, which had been sealed shut since the 1980s. Jones was thinking of the space’s history and how it was once occupied, not by artists, but by factory workers. The almost 100-year-old building in London’s East End was a veneer factory in the 1930s.

Jones’s curiosity for buildings stretches back to the early part of her formal art education at Glasgow School of Art, which is closely associated with Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. As an undergraduate student, Jones’s interest laid not with Charles, but with the designs of his wife Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh. Margaret’s legacy is not entirely overlooked—Charles has acknowledged her as a great influence and frequent collaborator—but unsurprisingly for a woman artist of the late 19th century, her distinctive work is diminished in comparison with that of her husband. This prompted Jones to consider how art spaces are occupied and gendered.

Rachel Jones, Six Feet Wonders, n.d. Courtesy of the artist.

In Jones’s Six Feet Wonders, shown in the Royal Scottish Academy’s “New Contemporaries” exhibition in 2014, abstracted figures drawn from life and from imagination are superimposed over loosely rendered university buildings. The extended grid of window panes is an unmistakable reference to Charles’s design, and becomes a moody backdrop for the larger-than-life figures demanding to take up space both inside and outside the institution. They are fantastical, hybrid creatures who are visibly angry, even violent, hungry for what they have been denied. Their exposed breasts are the only sign of their gender.

After earning a BA in painting and printmaking, Jones returned to London in pursuit of an MA in painting from the Royal Academy Schools. It was there that her works became increasingly self-referential; it was impossible for Jones to express the full breadth of her thoughts and interests without addressing her isolation as a Black woman artist in an overwhelmingly white academy.

Rachel Jones, installation view of “SMIIILLLLEEEE” at Thaddaeus Ropac, 2021. © Rachel Jones. Photo by Eva Herzog. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul.

If the primary function of Jones’s work is to express the vast spectrum of her emotions, teeth became, for the artist, evocative of so many elements of human existence, such as consumption, laughter, even violence. The mouth is both a figurative and literal opening, an entryway into the physical body—its essential functions and all the unpleasantness that it entails—as well as an avenue for speech and expression. Although not working directly from reference images, Jones’s practice is informed by her exposure to visual media, nature, and her lived experiences. There are nods to grills and gold teeth, a form of adornment that is common across the Black diaspora. However, the underlying principle is that everyone has a mouth and everyone has a starting point to think about the infinite possibilities that lie within.

The composition of Jones’s paintings, which are almost always large in scale, are dictated by the size and shape of her canvas. One of the works in “say cheeeeese” is a diptych, but the paintings that feel most alive are the ones pinned to the wall with nails. They are unconstrained by straight lines and seem to crawl or spread off of the unstretched canvases’ rough-cut edges.

Rachel Jones, lick your teeth, they so clutch, 2021. © Rachel Jones. Photo by Eva Herzog. Courtesy of Thaddaeus Ropac gallery, London · Paris · Salzburg · Seoul.

One such work is lick your teeth, they so clutch (2021), which was originally featured in last year’s “Mixing it Up: Painting Today” group exhibition at Hayward Gallery. Jones’s compositions are grounded by a base layer, and those featured in “say cheeeeese,” have evolved to become softer and more organic, like landscapes of sorts. Flowers have become another regular motif, bringing to mind the work of Guyanese painter Aubrey Williams who, in decades prior, blurred the boundaries between abstraction and figuration in his depictions of flora and fauna.

Surface-level readings of Jones’s work as simply “beautiful” do not do justice to their complexity and range; her concern with the ugly parts of society is rooted in her experiences as a Black woman. Jones’s consideration for how spaces are occupied has not diminished, and now, she is interested in disrupting the gallery space and creating a sense of discomfort in the viewer.

Rachel Jones, installation view of “say cheeeeese” at Chisenhale Gallery, 2022. Photo by Andy Keate. Courtesy of the artist.

In “say cheeeeese,” Jones constructed a freestanding wall at the gallery entrance, stating in the exhibition materials her intention to instill in viewers “a sense of being uncomfortable or tense, or being conscious of your body in relation to the space and how you move within it.” Jones has also spoken about her use of oil sticks and how it allows for an absence of interruption between her body and the work. By manipulating the space of the exhibition, Jones also wants to close the distance between the viewer and the work as much as possible.

At the height of Abstract Expressionism, Georges Bataille wrote about the violence that underpins modern art and referred to Francisco de Goya as the precursor to modernism. Goya’s works were confrontational, holding a mirror up to society, and Jones does not shy away from this in her own paintings. They are vibrant and textural, the markings and color choices fluid yet extremely intentional, offering multiple readings if viewers are willing to engage deeply. It is unsurprising that Jones also works with sound installations and has a writing practice, and although they do not intersect, they are vessels to take on any topic—none is too whimsical or too great.

Aurella Yussuf