The Shadow of the Decorative (excerpt)

Benjamin Greenman

Published in the catalogue ‘HOTSPOTS’ by Sammlung Essl, Klosterneuburg/Wein 2005

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the decorative as a vital concern of painting. This is to recall what was at stake in the struggle of Modernism with its antecedent Symbolism. With the rise of abstraction the decorative came to represent an imminent threat to modernist painting; were a work to be merely decorative it would relinquish its status as a painting in both a critical and vital sense. The reappearance of decorative design, therefore, would imply something taking place at a limit of what painting was and is still thought to be. The present moment could be described as the turning back of painting upon the disavowed resources of its history, those elements that were relegated to the low arts and the ornamentation of mass-produced objects.

In the paintings of three Amsterdam based artists — Janice McNab, Renato Galante and Hanneline Visnes — we can grasp some of the implications of this involution. In all three artist’s work the decorative occurs as a determining element. And each of their works evokes in its own way a disarming quality. The unnerving and inhuman spaces of McNab’s paintings, Galante’s floral motifs contaminated by the dross of its own materiality, and the puncturing of decorative expanse in Visnes’ paintings with incongruous elements all suggest a disquietude underlying the return of the decorative. In the age of the spectacle commodity each work resonates with a pathos that bears the trace of a humanized but unreconciled ‘nature’.

There is an uncanny familiarity to McNab’s paintings. They consist of a fully rendered surface as well as a singular viewpoint, in the case of recent works a vertiginous vantage point looming over an enlarged terrain. In these recent works she has used empty chocolate box trays as subject-matter. This seemingly innocuous object involves a range of thematic threads, ranging from narratives of nationalism to the equivocal character of the luxurious in the age of mass consumption. For McNab what painting can do, its affect, is an open question. The characteristic inherent in the subject-matter of allure, promise and gratification and their potential vacuity are posed as questions about what the experience of painting may offer. A distinct quality of her paintings is the feeling of a suspended moment, a momentary cessation in a narrative, or a frozen movement. This is most palpable in the work Night in which the darkness of a room is broken by the faint light of a clock radio, as if quietly announcing the threat of a sudden catastrophe. In the ‘chocolate box’ paintings we are presented with landscapes without horizons in which the light-source is outside of the picture. The light comes from above and, rendered in an unearthly hue, articulates the contours of a structure. The recession of space from the picture plane is synonymous with a movement towards the light and guides the eyes in and through the forms. The designs of the wrappings and plastic inlays, reiterating natural motifs, are echoed in the desolate structures of the picture. The open shell forms are like vessels of light. And the interplay of the design leads to an intricate and ambiguous folding of surfaces. A humanized nature returns as an unnerving and inhuman space, something between an airless landscape and an architecture of ruins. In other paintings we find McNab concerned with the effect of veiling. In Hotel there are two yellow lights beyond a curtain and the suggestion, perhaps, of a street scene. Again, light appears to attract and guide the eye. And like the ‘chocolate box’ paintings it implies that there is something beyond what is present which cannot be made fully visible.