The Philosopher's Ridge

New works by Janice McNab

Petra Heck, The Agency Gallery, 2006.

The Scottish painter Janice McNab (b. 1964) -who lives and works in Amsterdam- describes her painting series as projects. Thus, she undertook such a project about flotation tanks, “The Tank Paintings” (2003), where instead of the rest and relief that these luxury items were meant to create, the result was more evocative of coldness and banality. She also painted a series of abandoned aeroplane seats. By painting the seats tightly crammed in, McNab compressed everyday objects to their essence. No place in the world is unreachable, but the price is sitting for hours crammed into a tiny space with too many other passengers and bad food. The recent "Chocolate Box Paintings" (2005) refer to both enslaved consumption and romantic landscapes, simultaneously evoking science fiction-like environments. McNab uses many elements clearly from daily life in her work and works these into her painting as both recognisable yet totally alienating images.

During a studio visit, Janice McNab first showed me a new series of five works on paper. A white border and the framing makes it clear that these works were meant to remind us of snapshots, thus betraying the origin of the images. The original photographs were taken by McNab herself. She has given the works a white framework to build in a sort of filter, a necessary distance from the theme and the location.

The first painting "Philosopher's Ridge" (2006) depicts a scene, viewed from a great distance, in which a small group of people peer into a crater. The title refers to the name of a hiking path one can follow on Mount Etna. The legend goes that a sage, Pliny the Elder, dived into the boiling crater to reach the tragic conclusion that he could not fly. The work shows the viewer abstracted patterns of smoke or clouds with little figures that peer into the depths from the safe distance of the path.

Other works on paper depict scenes from nearer-by. Out of the darkness, we see people from behind, silhouetted by a light source. We can't really see what is going on. Is it an innocent view, a natural volcanic eruption, an oil fire or bombardment? Or maybe a religious vision? Some of those present clearly wear helmets. But are they oil workers, soldiers or tourists?

In the forthcoming exhibition there are also four large paintings on MDF. Two of them depict smoke, lots of smoke. What is clearly different in these works is the heightened abstraction. It is no longer possible to gain any overview of the setting; there is no visible background and no horizon to recognise. At the same time, there is a noticeable slanting fold in the middle, as if the image had been photographed from a book and subsequently painted. Because the action here is shown so literally, the drama needed to be reduced. Therefore McNab has built in an extra medium -that of the book- as a filter. As in many of her works the spectator is constantly reminded, by the realistic character of the paintings, of the fictitious nature of the painted surface.

The second painting, "Centrefold" shows the middle pages of a magazine with a depiction of an enormous explosion. There is a strange double layerering to this painting, as if the centrefold additionally aims for a confusing Rorschach experience. That mirrored imagery, which appears in many psychological tests, is used here as a motif -not to bring a clearer understanding of something unfamiliar but instead to bring abstraction and distance to the familiar and to initiate a discussion about the nature of representative images.

The last two paintings in the exhibition do not conjure up any immediate associations with action. One shows the abstract pattern of the roof of a glasshouse and the other two glowing headlights in the dark. At the same time, these apparently unrelated works actually do have a lot to do with the others. The motifs are of not being able to see: the headlights blind and the glare reflected in the glass makes a clear view impossible. McNab's work makes the viewer aware of the manner in which things and actions are seen and shown and forces us to think about the representation of images and forms.