Text by Ersatz Gallery/Ken Pratt
In The Bloodbathers Scottish artist Janice McNab presents a new body of paintings created from images of ice cream. The artist has modelled figures out of ice cream, and then paints from the photographic documentation of these as they melt away. This kitsch and childlike subject matter sits uneasily with the classical painting techniques McNab uses and the references she makes to art of the past: occasionally we might catch a shadow of a familiar Renaissance portrait or a famed Spanish court painting, embedded within the seductive ice-cream.
This dissonance between the subject and its portrayal is one of the keys to these paintings, and a thread that runs through much of McNab’s previous work, though the emphases have evolved over time—an earlier series of images of flotation tanks, which are specifically designed for relaxation, were painted in a way that enhanced only their potential for claustrophobia and anxiety; discarded airline seats seemed to suggest a disaster, but the images were actually taken from a film-set storage area. This content was heightened by painterly choices, such as the decision to paint on board, which underscored these earlier paintings as alienating surfaces that denied seduction.
The Bloodbathers, however, is most directly related to the immediately preceding series, The Chocolate Box Paintings, which introduced a subtle feminist critique of the contemporary landscape of lifestyle choices. The ‘little luxury’ being painted this time was the tacky packaging of boxes of chocolates, and it was morphed into strange landscapes in order to engage with the artist’s ideas about Romanticism, consumerism and gender. The implied (female) body was largely absent, the occasional figures tiny genderless specks dwarfed and made voiceless by their context. In The Bloodbathers Janice McNab moves closer to a representation of the female body, and yet, because of the central conceit of using ice cream, that definite confirmation always remains elusive.
Actually, the paintings play with our anthropomorphic desire—they seem to represent figures, but they are actually still-life paintings. And as in Dutch Vanitas of the Golden Age, they show a transient object held in time by paint. They are not snapshots however, they do not report on a captured moment of ‘the real’. The slow and deliberate brush marks of this sort of making process quietly demand the material surface to be read as a sort of gathering up of time, and there is a constant tension between this and the melting away of the ice cream.
Also unlike Pop art or Hyper-realism, these images deny any reading as seductive advertising. The ice cream in this exhibition no longer looks delicious or easy to swallow; it starts to perform as a body, to be of bone, flesh and bodily fluids. Janice McNab’s exploration of this ambiguous representation came out of the question of how she—as a woman artist—might try to privilege the inner world of experience and comment on the continued infantilising insistence on women's bodily exterior in our visual culture. Children, of course, like ice cream, and like making monsters out of their food. In conflating these references McNab tries to play with the idea of play, of what it forms and what it tells.
The ambiguity of these ‘ice cream monsters’, the fluidity of the forms and the possibility to see in them various body parts, or even mountain landscapes, is an important position within the practice itself. As with other artists painting after the distillation of theoretical ideas within dominant artistic discourses (a historical moment that might be roughly marked on a timeline as Postmodernism) Janice McNab rejects easy over-determination of meaning. These multi-layered and complex paintings stand as possibilities. Here painting is an intentional activity, but one where the viewer must also be active in the final determination of meaning.