By Rachel Withers, February 2002
Todd Haynes curious film Safe 1995 tells the tale of a woman who becomes allergic to the twentieth century: developing a morbid sensitivity to everyday chemicals, she quits her post as a dutiful American mother, housewife and consumer and seeks a cure in a nightmarish ‘healing community’. Is she the victim of material pollutants, society’s crushing psychological demands — or both? The film leaves the question unanswered, suggestively blurring the line between modern living’s physical and mental incursions. In this way it anticipates the ideas of such commentators as Elaine Showalter, who has argued (in Hystories 1997) that the psychologically oppressive aspects of modern existence can be cause enough, in themselves, for severe physical illness. According to Showalter, hysteria lives on in conditions like chronic fatigue and Gulf War syndrome.
The six paintings in Janice McNab’s London show tap this reservoir of anxious contention, though one imagines her sitters would object very strongly to the way Haynes and Showalter psychologise illness. Since 1998, McNab has been working with people suffering from the long-term effects of chemical poisoning; her paintings are based on photographs of them and their home environments. Each is accompanied by a short simply worded text describing the subject’s predicament. Van, 1998 is a scene vividly reminiscent of Safe — an eerie nightmare depiction of a mobile home in the Texas desert that serves as a chemical free refuge for a real-life Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) sufferer. Also here are three portraits of Fabienne, an elderly woman whose allergic sensitivity has trapped her in her home for twenty years. Hallway, 2000, offers a skewed top-of-the-stairs view of an apartment that was repeatedly sprayed with pesticide by local authorities, triggering MCS in its resident.
In Illness as a metaphor (1978) Susan Sontag insists that true insights into illness can only be won by resisting metaphoric thinking, but she goes on to admit that ‘ the lurid metaphors with which [illness] has been landscaped’ inevitably mould our perception of it. McNab strives to represent spaces fraught with invisible dangers, and minds battling fear and isolation, without traducing her subjects’ dignity and privacy. Given the task of rendering visual that which cannot be seen, metaphor becomes an indispensable tool, and thus her paintings offer a visual articulation of Sontag’s dilemma. In Van, Hallway, and the Fabienne portraits, McNab faithfully reproduces in paint the flattening, bleaching effects of flash photography. The artificial illumination distorts and partly erases the objects it is meant to expose, at the same time lending each scene a claustrophobic (but never lurid) character. In Fabienne last went outdoors in 1981, 2000, for example, the sitter’s face looms wanly, her features a straggle of faint brushstrokes. The blankness of Hallway’s walls serves both the artists inability to show the chemicals with which they are saturated and MCS’s apparent invisibility and incomprehensibility vis-à-vis conventional medical thought.
In Laurie is Hyperactive, 2000, McNab uses a contre-jour effect as another metaphor for exclusion and lack of knowledge: a family sits round a table, silhouetted against a window. The child’s toys, arranged on the sill, are the only compositional elements allowed access to the daylight. McNab achieves this image, and the other works in the show, with an economical painterly style that sustains the problematic. Avoiding both photorealistic slickness and expressionistic flourish, it reads as a knife-edge balancing act between an objective and subjective register, reinforcing the play of opposites — visibility and invisibility, objectivity and subjectivity, expression and concealment — that shapes the artist’s overall project.