Now What? Dreaming of a Better World, BAK, Utrecht, 2003

Now What? Dreaming of a Better World, BAK, Utrecht, 2003


The first impulse towards painting, or towards art in general stems from the need to communicate… Every word, every line, every thought is prompted by the age we live in, with all its circumstances, its ties, its efforts, its past and present. It is impossible to think independently or arbitrarily. — Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting, T&H, 1995


Previous texts on the work of Janice McNab have concentrated on the social and political message and narrative in her paintings, exploring her stance on the illls of society and the rise of globalisation. An important aspect of her work however is that in making her comment she chooses to paint at all.

In creating her intense works she frequently selects from a broad range of sources, including her own photographs. These photographs are important in that they form a vital part of her research, taking her into close personal interviews, the backrooms of television studios, film prop rooms, holiday and leisure centres. Her work does not make overt political statements or really force opinion on the viewer; rather, by addressing the subject (of fear, confinement, anxiety, and neurosis) in a lateral and literally objective manner she avoids loud confrontation and offers multiple readings. The interiors and objects painted by McNab are often rendered dark and brooding with a Kafkaesque mood and ability to unsettle the viewer. We are unsure whether these are real or fictional rooms. The object in its space implies various narratives: at times the cropping and strong use of chiaroscuro leads almost to abstraction with form, pattern and composition working as points of strength. The paintings are informed by their photographic origins, reproducing much of the visual language of the original photograph, but unlike the photograph a painting is never a truly convincing window on the world. The viewer is always taken back to the fiction of its painted surface. It is a painted sign: for the photo, for the subject of the photo, for the quasi-objectivity of the photo. The smooth surfaces are simplified by strong flashlit contrasts. The use of close-ups and angle of sight is almost akin to filmmaking. Given that much of this recent work is associated with that medium this is unsurprising. However McNab is not trying to make a comment on the large or small screen per se, her areas of interest have a much broader application.

She has recently said that her work is about social anxiety and certainly she has an uncanny knack of selecting a specific object that can characterise an aspect of the current social order.

The Chairs series begun in 2002 have had a lingering impact. The paintings are images of old airline seats in a film set warehouse. The disused chairs, mixed up and randomly stored, seem to question the modernist assumption of freedom to travel and seemingly endless global expansion. Following recent disasters such a reference to air travel is also inevitably a reference to international terrorism. The Tanks and Chairs paintings suggest a certain failure of aspiration, a failure in connecting. Television is another kind of removed space. With the Eastenders series of paintings the artist is interested in a closed and complete environment, which seems to offer a palliative of a traditional community. The works came out of visits to the BBC studio sets where the programmes are made. She shows us areas consistently isolated and uninhabited. Places and objects are seen out of use, in the dark, after hours. The covered prop stalls of the market place have an eerie presence, their stripped fabric forms creating abstracted looming structures so unlike how they must seem to the majority of viewers of the programme. The painting Charity Box, the Queen Vic is one of the gems of the exhibition. An image from the ‘bar’, the heart of the fictional action, is painted as a poetic and soft focus still life of dark sepias and reflection.

In some of the paintings the image is barely discernible. In E20, another Eastenders interior, dark tones and sparse features create an image double take, veering into abstraction. Beach (2003) also works in this way; the abyss in the distance is created by strong contrasts and is completely at odds with its subject—a fake beach for rainy weather. In the hands of McNab this anodyne if absurd image is rendered full of menace, far from the seeming innocence of its intention.

The Tanks series explores the alternative therapy of flotation tanks. They make curious images, relaxation modules that operate by removing as much external stimuli as possible. The Tanks have names such as river, mountain and meadow: intriguing metaphors for what we may have lost. Form is an important aspect of these paintings. The Tanks are shown quite alone in their private cubicles, occasionally a frail shelf holding a towel the only real indication of scale, emphasising the dominance of the coffin-like shape. In others the cropped detail of the tank fills the picture frame with lingering detail.

The most recent works in the exhibition are informed by investigation into the fake utopia of the leisure industry and issues of national identity that are related both to marketing and nationhood. The kitsch images of Foolishness and Sentiment are also about disconnection and although they are accepted as innocent cliché they are also signifiers of a darker story of ethnic difference that is rising all over Europe. Sentiment (2003) has an immediate sense of recognition. It can be identified strongly with a vast tradition of landscape painting in Scotland where wilderness and a romantic notion of rugged beauty are laid out in panoramic range. In this painting McNab acknowledges our recognition and takes it further showing that it is a doubly false icon: a two dimensional illusion of landscape and a one-dimensional illusion of national pride. The painting shows the ubiquitous tourist calendar wittily indicated by a glimpse of the date line running along the lower painted edge.

The process of moving between photography and painting is mediated though the artist’s careful selection and intention. The photographic sources are not random; rather they form part of an ongoing documentary investigation into simulated and real means of escape, isolation and removal from the mainstream. The recent work has some light-hearted themes as it moves to explore aspects of the entertainment and leisure industry but at its heart this work is exploring serious issues, issues that are important to society. Throughout the history of art it has always been art that has brave enough to do so that has remained.

Oils give a slick new take on life by Moira Jeffrey (2004).
Published in The Herald, Glasgow.

‘Oils give a slick new take on life’, by Moira Jeffrey (2004). Published in The Herald, Glasgow.