James Rielly

Born in Wales (UK) in 1956, currently lives and works between Paris (FR) and the South of France. 

The highly characteristic works of British painter James Rielly focus on the clichés, ideologies and metaphors of children. Creating subversive and at times surreal portraits of bright-eyed, school-aged youths, Rielly addresses notions of societal tension and pictorial tradition. His most well-known series are Casual Influences (2000) and Sensible Ways (96-97), which consist of large-scale portraits inspired by stories and images taken from local newspaper articles. Through the act of highlighting certain features and roles in children, Rielly’s pieces bring out the dysfunctional nature of adults.

Rielly has shown his paintings in a number of solo exhibitions since 1983 including Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France, Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York, Fond Regional d'Art Contemporain Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand, Centro de Arte de Salamanca (CASA), Salamanca, Spain, Centre d'Art Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and Scott White Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA, among many others. In 1995 he was awarded a MOMART fellowship at Tate Gallery and in 1997 he was shortlisted for the Jerwood Prize. He has been Professor of Painting at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris, France since 2006.


Didier Semin
Translation by Cole Swensen.

Rainbow over the Village of the Damned                 

Modernity in art is not, as is often claimed, solely a matter of the progressive emancipation of materials and colors; by the end of the 19th century, both had earned the right to fight back against the dominance of the image. The kind stork that supposedly delivered the baby of abstraction is a fiction designed to reassure sensitive young people. But let's look modern art (20th century) and contemporary art (the 21st) in the face: rarely in human history have we seen so much massacre and so much madness. 

If we agree that art is not an innocent fantasy independent of its social circumstances, we need to make some corrections to its official records. For those of us who dreamed of living in that best of all possible worlds invented by Maurice Denis in 1890, when a painting was "before being a war horse, a naked woman, or some other anecdote, essentially a flat surface covered with colors put together in a certain order," we would probably be wise to think of our era as having begun a century earlier, in 1799, with the appearance of Goya's Caprices. That series was announced in a Madrid newspaper on the sixth of February of that crucial year, and the announcement ended with these admirable words: "[…] painting (like poetry) chooses from the universal whatever it considers proper to its ends; it brings together, in a single imaginary character, circumstances and characteristics that nature has scattered among many, and, if this combination is insightfully arranged, a happy imitation results, by which painting, when truly artful, earns the title of inventor as opposed to that of servile copyist. Sold in Disenchantment Street in the store that sells perfumes and liqueurs, this collection of 80 prints is priced at 320 réaults."

And no doubt, it was a sleep of reason similar to that depicted by Goya in plate 43 of his Caprices that engendered the creatures that appear in James Rielly's watercolors in the show at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The veiled dwarf of Cowboy and the running phantoms of Small Ghost and We Are Owls directly evoke the naïve servants and madam-mothers, similarly well-wrapped, that people Goya's works. And the celestial battle between the Virgin and the devil that takes place over the Painted House recalls the Sabbaths of Correción and Todos caerán. Rielly incorporates additionally captivating and disquieting reveries into this image—in particular, one of a neighbor's house inspired by the Facteur Cheval's amazing creations, which the neighbor had covered entirely in ceramics. The house has since been destroyed, and perhaps the masterpieces it might have contained, as well. 

And though there are clear links between Goya's visions and Rielly's, the latter's pastel tones are dramatically different from the former's lugubrious shades of black, grey, and ocher. This is not only a difference of 200 years; it also reflects the responses of two distinctly different cultures—it's been a long time since every consideration of national particularity passed for a Petainist revindication (and it's hard to see why what goes without saying for music or cooking doesn't go equally for painting). Rielly is an expert practitioner of the understatement, which Stuart Morgan once called the United Kingdom's national sport. (A British person, he claimed, always tries to say a little less than what he thought necessary.) It's no cliché to say that in London, The Sleep of Reason would be prudently called nonsense, and I don't need to state that James Rielly is a British citizen, even if he has lived in France for the past twenty years, in a region in the southwest that includes so many of his compatriots that English is the region's second language, a region that represents Europe as we dream it, but that it is, alas, far from yet being. 

As a medium, watercolor is not a "weak water" as opposed to etching's "eau-forte." In fact, it's a particularly intransigent medium, one that tolerates no error, hesitation, or correction, and that requires a discipline in the execution that cedes nothing to the art of engraving. Rielly chooses Tibetan or Chinese papers with distinct, irregular textures for his watercolors, rather than the conventionally-grained papers that can make watercolors seem vulgar and as if they're trying to cheat on the drying times required by the medium. Rielly, instead, sponges up the excess, creating print-like effects more frequently associated with lithography. His colors are suave and pale—just like those of English boiled sweets—which contradicts or attenuates the crudity of the images, creating the visual understatement that Stuart Morgan aptly mentioned. But this is not the only link that Rielly has with his country's popular culture, nor the only source of the peaceful horror that emanates from his works. 

For a long time I wondered what deeply buried memory his deformed children with their royal blue eyes touched in me, until chance brought me back to the astonishing Village of the Damned. Made in 1960 by Wolf Rilla, a British filmmaker—all the more so, if of one can put it that way, because he was so recently so; his parents had escaped to London from Nazi Germany in 1934. The film counts, along with Don Siegel's The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, among the most successful of a genre closely linked to the Cold War period; it tells a tale of invaders, who, diffused throughout the population of a country, go about exterminating it—or, more precisely, replacing it—from within, in another version of the "fifth column," reviving old myths and specters. The children in the Village of the Damned, engendered during a mysterious "night of the Walpurgis," while their mothers were asleep, are only different from ordinary children in their unusually high intelligence, their unnaturally disciplined hair, and their unnaturally light eyes. These are the very eyes that we see in Rielly's watercolors.

One of them gives us perhaps an additional clue. It depicts, with a remarkable economy of means, a modest chapel with an open bell tower, like you might see in Brittany or Wales—where Rielly comes from. It is , in fact, the Chapel of St. Gwyfan, built on a tiny island whose cliffs are fortified to keep the ocean from washing them away. Deprived of its bell, this retreat has become silenced, and has no doubt been long deserted by the faithful; on its sides, Rielly has painted the famous blue eyes, staring at you. The image is, in its simplicity, extraordinarily efficient. War propaganda during the 1940s came up with, or resurrected from ancient tradition, the slogan "Walls Have Ears" to warn civilians of the dangers of idle chatter that might convey crucial information to enemy agents. But, as is so often the case, this expression, this "image," even if it's perfectly comprehensible, doesn't create any picture in our minds. (For that matter, there's an endless list of supposedly visual metaphors that never get beyond the barrier of words—for instance, no one ever pictures someone trying to head off a problem as poised with a pair of garden sheers "nipping it in the bud.") The rare attempts at picturing a wall of bricks fitted out with an aural organ were at best comical, even though the gaze of a house seems perfectly obvious. It's poetry, film, and painting that, in this case, grasp the point, as opposed to popular language. Nerval: "Fear from the blind wall an invasive gaze / Words hold to the very matter of the world / Don't let that matter serve a purpose impure!" clearly says that a wall is not hearing but sight. The watercolor St Gwyfan compounds this by also evoking the inquisitive eyes of the modernist house of Jacques Tatï's Mon Oncle.

A priori, and even if you don't know the Welsh village of Cribinau, there can be no doubt that the eyes are on the watercolor and not on the chapel. But the inverse is not impossible—on the four faces of the Stupa of Swayambhunath in Katmandu, the painted eyes seem to survey the entire world around it. Perhaps Rielly's contact with India, where he often travels, and which informs an integral part of his British imaginary, helped him to conceive of a syncretic cult in which chapels could have eyes and could warmly shelter creatures that, though deformed, are not diabolic—dwarves, children with two noses, four arms, three eyes. It's our bland, monotheistic images that, when, by some miracle, they're allowed, have forged our conservative depictions of the human body. For centuries, the art of the western world has only given jubilant and eccentric forms to demons, while Hinduism hasn't hesitated to people its pantheon with bodies with three heads, or an elephant's mask, or multiple pairs of arms. And this tells us, perhaps, that Rielly's Caprices, passing by the Ganges and Five O'Clock Tea, are not rooted in the same nightmare as Goya's, at the brink of a modernity whose horrors he depicts. Rielly's are definitely haunted by monsters, but they are monsters that speak both of the ill of which they're capable and of the peace that they demand; they speak of pain and of its redemption, of the absurdity of our lives and the vanity that enrages us—that of appeased monsters, wearing rainbow mascara in their hell. Paradoxically, there's something angelic in Rielly's watercolor village of the damned, if we accept G.K. Chesterton's maxim—angels can fly because they take themselves lightly—after all, it's not a matter of occasionally confusing a plate of breakfast eggs with a beauty mask.

  • Selected Solo Exhibitions

Thinking things through, New Art Projects (UK)
We lived our lives in the spiritual not the material world, GE Galeria (MX)
Knock on wood, Galerie Wittenbrink, Munich (DE)
Everything is something else, Hillsboro Fine Art, Dublin (IR)
Tyhyll, Cabinet de Dessin Jean Bonna, ENSBA, Paris (FR)
Image on the Edge, galerie l’inlassable, Paris (FR)
Punch me, La Box, ENSBA, Bourges (FR)
When I was young I would sit in the bath and ideas would come to me, now I am old I sit in the bath, Scott White Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA. (US)
James Rielly, Galerie Wittenbrink, Munchen (DE)
Nothing and something, Galerie Charlotte Moser, Geneva (CH)
What wisdom, Ramis Barquet Gallery, New York (US)
Spirits in the sky, Galerie Wittenbrink, Munich (DE)
James Rielly, I M Art Gallery, Seoul, (KW)
Things that go bump in the day, Studio d’Arte Ra aelli, Trento (IT)
New Works on Paper, Rabley Contemporary Drawing Centre, Marlborough (UK)
Proposal for 200 little ideas, Galerie Charlotte Moser, Geneva (CH)
Tell Me a Story, Galeria Ramis Barquet, New York (US)
Full of Possibilities 2, Galeria Ramis Barquet, Monterrey (MX)
Nipples, Galeria Distrito Cu4tro, Madrid (ES)
Life of Rielly, Timothy Taylor Gallery, London (UK) 
Outside Looking Out, Galeria Ramis Barquet, New York (US)
Made in France, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris (FR)
Made in East London, Galeria Distrito Cu4tro, Madrid (ES).
James Rielly,Rex Irwin Fine Art, Sydney (AT)
Late and Early, Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh and Timothy Taylor Gallery, London (UK)
James Rielly, Centro de Arte de Salamanca (CASA), Salamanca (ES)
James Rielly, Fond Regional d’Art Contemporain Auvergne, Clermont-Ferrand (FR)
London Ghosts and Party Animals, Galerie Voges & Partner, Frankfurt am Main (DE)
James Rielly, Studio D!Arte Ra aelli, Trento (IT)
James Rielly, Archimedes Sta olini Gallery, Nicosia (CY)
Casual Influences, Oriel Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno (WA)

James Rielly, Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York (US)
James Rielly, Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Paris (FR) 
James Rielly, CAN, Centre d’Art Neuchâtel (CH).
James Rielly , Patrick de Brock Gallery, Knokke (BE) 
Sensible Ways, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes (FR) 
James Rielly, Berning and Daw Fine Art, London (UK) 
James Rielly, Galerie Wittenbrink, Munich (DE)
James Rielly, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (DE) 
James Rielly, Laurent Delaye Gallery, London (UK) 
James Rielly, Berning and Daw Fine Art, London (UK) 
James Rielly, Galerie Wittenbrink, Munich (UK)
James Rielly, Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (DE) 
James Rielly, Alexander Roussos Gallery, London (UK) 
James Rielly, Carlile Gallery, London (UK) 
James Rielly, Bayer Gallery, Provincetown (USA)
James Rielly, Hudson D. Walker, Provincetown (US) 
Artist in Residence, Art & Research Exchange Galley, Belfast, (GBE)

Selected Group Exhibitions

Utopie Pictural 3, Galerie Forma, Geneva (CH)
Micro Salon#6, galerie l'inlassable, Paris (FR)
Micro Salon#5, galerie l’inlassable, Paris (FR)
Donation Florence et Daniel Guerlain, Centre Pompidou, Paris (FR)
House of Helfa, Llandudno, North Wales (WA)
Home, The Crossley Gallery, Dean Clough, Halifax (UK)
Friends and Family, Galerie Eva Hober, Paris (FR)
Utopie Picturale, Ville Dutoit, Geneva (CH)
Galerie Charlotte Moser, Geneva (CH)
Galerie Nosbaum and Reding, Luxembourg (LU)
The Painter, the Draughtsman, the Dealer and their Lovers, Voges Gallery, Frankfurt am Main (DE)
Gallery Artists, Wittenbrink Gallery, Munich (DE)
Works on paper, Galerie Charlotte Moser, Geneva (CH)
Fate and Freewill, Cas, New York (US)
Hope and Despair, curated by Bob Matthews, Cell Project Space, London (UK)
Philippe Cognee & James Rielly, Galerie Sollertis, Toulouse (FR)
El rey de la casa (King of the house), Palau de la Virreina, Barcelona (ES)
Paper Baglady and Other Stories , Timothy Taylor Gallery, London (UK)
World-Gone-Mad, curated by Bob Matthews, Herbert Read Gallery, Canterbury (UK)
Castle eld Gallery, Manchester (UK)
Limehouse Arts Foundation, London (UK)
XS, Galeria Distrito Cu4tro, Madrid, (ES)
Spoilt Rotten, Oriel Davies Gallery, Newtown, (WA)
(…) The duck was still alive, Abbaye Saint-Andre, Centre d’art contemporain, Meymac (FR)
Contre-Images, Carré d!Art, Nimes, (FR)
Summertime in the City, Archimedes Sta olini Gallery, Athens (GR)
Outlook, curated by Christos Joachimedes, Benaki Museum, Athens (GR)
Anthropography, Frissiras collection, Frissiras Museum, Athens (GR)
Child in Time: views of contemporary artists on youth and adolescence, Gemeentemuseum Helmond (NL)
Childhood, CASA Centro de Arte de Salamanca (ES)
Telling Stories, Vedanta Gallery, Chicago (US)
Il Grande Freddo, curated by Luca Beatrice, In Dres, Turin (IT)
Once Again, John Hansard Gallery, Southampton (UK)
Portraits, Edward Mitterand Gallery, Geneva (CH)
Intimacy , Russell-Coates Museum, Bournemouth (UK)
Disturb , 1st Public School of Hydra, Hydra (GR)
La tête de l’emploi, organised by FRAC Auvergne, Centre Culturel Valery Larbaud (FR)
Fame and Promise, 14 Wharf Road, London (UK)
Snakes, Snails and Puppy Dog Tails, Nikolai Fine Art, New York (US)
Love You Always, Damasquine Gallery, Brussels (BE)
Strictly Painting II, Voges & Deisen Gallery, Frankfurt am Main (DE).
The Double , The Lowry Art Centre, Salford, Manchester (UK) (cat.)
La Spiritualità Nell’Arte Da Boccioni a Serrano, Santuario di Oropa, Biella (IT)
James Rielly, Sophie von Hellermann, Markus Vater, London (UK)
Drawings, Spencer Brownstone Gallery, New York (US)
Y2K Fine Arts from the UK, Archemedes Sta olini Gallery, Nicosia (CY)
(Corps) Social, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris (FR) (cat.)
Arts Council Collection, Towner Art Gallery and Museum, Eastbourne (UK)
Growing Up Post Modern, University Galleries, Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois (US)
Fresh Paint, Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (SCT)
British Portrait 1 – James Rielly, Studio d!Arte Ra aelli, Trento (IT)
Sorted, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (UK)
Tell Me a Story: Narration in Contemporary Painting and Photography, Magasin, Centre National d’Art Contemporain
Men on Women, Oriel Gallery eatre, Clwd (WA)
Galerie de la Tour, Amsterdam (NL)
Whitechapel Gallery Open, Del na Studios Trust, London (UK)
John Moores Liverpool Exhibition 19, Liverpool (UK)
Making it: process and participation, Tate Gallery, Liverpool (UK) 
Galerie Wittenbrinck, Munich (DE)
Gilmour Gallery, London (UK)
The Fete Worse than Death, Laurent Delaye Gallery, London (UK)
East, Norwich Gallery, Norwich (UK)
London Buddhist Centre, London (UK)
Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin (DE)
Carlile Gallery, London (UK)
Christopher Hull Gallery, London (UK)
Groucho Club, London (UK)
Recent Acquisitions Show, Art Association Gallery and Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts (US)
Bayer Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts (US)
New Figurations, Hudson D. Walker Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts (US)
Hudson D. Walker Gallery, Provincetown, Massachusetts (US)
Art Association Gallery and Museum, Provincetown, Massachusetts (US)
New Heritage, Welsh Arts Council, Oriel Gallery, Cardi (WA)

Public Collections (selected)
Arts Council of England (UK)
Dakis Joannou Collection, Athens (GR)
Fonds National d’Art Contemporain (FR)
Frissiras Collection, Athens (GR)
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes (FR)
Saatchi Collection, London (UK)
Sintra Museo de Arte Moderna (PT)
Tate Gallery, London (UK)
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (UK)
La Collection du FRAC d’Auvergne (FR)
National Museum of Wales, Cardi (UK)
CASA Salamanca (ES)
Deutsche Bank Collection (DE)
Wirth Collection (ES)