The Glasgow Herald

Moira Jeffrey, January, 2004

It's January and we're apparently promising ourselves a new start: the gym, the diet, and the financial makeover. For Christmas I received a voucher for a session in a flotation tank, those staples of spa and salon that promise that an hour afloat in salty water in a closed chamber listening to new age music is a return to the bliss of the womb.

I'm waiting till my stress levels are sufficiently high to really benefit from the process, (that'll be next week, then) but while I'm looking forward to it, I'm already wondering what it really means to lock yourself away from the world in the pursuit of escape.

At the Talbot Rice Gallery, artist Janice McNab's new paintings feature flotation tanks that look like 21st century sarcophagi. They are objects that surely Edgar Allan Poe would appreciate, fibre glass coffins for the living dead.

The tanks in the paintings are based on photographs the artist surreptitiously took in real salons. They have been named, in that astonishing doublespeak peddled by the cosmetics industry, to remind users of more evocative places than the dark basements they are housed in.

Meadow, is a flesh pink tank, it's shiny bulk like a beached nude. It speaks of the entrapment of the body rather than escape.

River, is swimming pool blue, but bolted shut it is the opposite of David Hockney's Californian dream swimming pools. In JG Ballard's novels or, in that supreme example of the American short story, John Cheever's The Swimmer, the drained swimming pool is the ultimate emblem of the ruin and desolation of the 20th century dream. Looking at McNab's paintings, the flotation tank might the 21st century equivalent.

But for all their rich associations these paintings are also empty and mute. They have the blankness of the photograph, the harsh light of the flash. Sometimes even the very painterly language seems to acknowledge its own impotence. Marks seem somehow exhausted; lines break up, objects dissolve under close scrutiny. None of this is real they seem to imply, it's just so much paint.

It is important that McNab's visual information is always, in some sense, second hand. Our experiences of the world are fundamentally recycled these days through the screen or the page. McNab takes a world that is already defined and shaped by the camera and painstakingly reshapes it in the old, and essentially awkward, medium of oil paint.

A couple of years ago McNab, who after a Scottish Arts Council residency in Amsterdam now spends her time between Holland and Scotland, went to London to photograph the set of Eastenders, in order to make some new paintings. For some years, she has been looking at the way our sense of community is stretched and distorted in the age of globalisation.

Eastenders is fiction, but our dependence on it, as a kind of substitute family and a balm for the uneasiness of the age, is undoubtedly fact. The Eastenders set, the very picture of the thriving community that few, if any of us seem to belong to these days, was a weird distorted echo of the other communities she has painted in the past. The isolated settlements of the New Mexico desert inhabited by people with total allergy syndrome, and for her Tramway show a couple of years ago a brave, but embattled, group of Greenock women, fighting a huge multinational over health and safety in the semiconductor industry.

At the Talbot Rice Gallery, the Eastenders pictures hang up stair on the balcony like a kind of chorus. The sets are empty, but full of ghosts. A bleached white charity box in the shape of a lion sits on the bar at the Queen Vic, with confident echoes of empire and royalty that now seem a ludicrous joke. The striped tarpaulins of Walford Market flap in the wind, while a set of electrical cables is the only clue to the contrived nature of the scene. Alongside them are other debased and fictitious images of community: a Scottish landscape calendar and three Dutch windmills made of blue china.

Down stairs, in the main gallery like uneasy principal actors, is her series chairs, which along with the tanks are some of the best paintings McNab has made in her career so far.

The chairs are aeroplane seats that the artist discovered stacked up in a London props warehouse, waiting their next outing in a television sitcom, or more likely a late night reconstruction of an aviation disaster. They are isolated, shambolic, like broken or ageing bodies. Leaning awkwardly on one another or eerily alert, stranded out of context.

Beside the tanks, they are a reminder of the suspension of disbelief that is required to climb into a plane, which is a hollow shell, and at the worst of times a coffin. They reek of current uncertainties yet recall one of the oldest traditions of Dutch painting, vanitas or vanity, a reminder of the brevity of human life and the transience of human acheivement.

Janice McNab is at the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh from Saturday until February 21.