Scotland On Sunday

Flash-lit images of fiction prove how soap replaces reality — Iain Gale, January 18, 2004

In an age when we are bombarded by second-hand images, it is all too tempting to believe that a work of art seen in reproduction can have the same impact as the real thing. This is absurd and if any proof were needed it is the paintings of Janice McNab. For these are paintings in the traditional sense: unique physical objects, which display the marks of craft and have a real presence.

Filled with pathos and grandeur, they demand to be seen in the flesh. I use the word advisedly. McNab‘s handling is fluid and sensual. The mind is drawn to the vigorous brushwork of Velazquez or Manet. While wholly contemporary, they are modern Old Masters and the messages they convey are likewise as old as time.

Famously, McNab works from photographs. But that is not an issue, aside from giving her images an immediate, occasionally flash-lit brilliance. It is merely her way of freezing the moment. In the past she has given us bitingly cynical paintings, with a strong historical Realist lineage, highlighting the plight of contemporary workers. Now however, she has deliberately moved away from such specific social commentary, towards a common language.

Uniquely, McNab was given access to the set of Eastenders and the resulting paintings are surely among the most universally relevant works of art being made today. Turning the whole idea of a TV soap on its head, McNab portrays not the characters, but the empty world they inhabit. She paints as portraits the deliberate falsehoods of the stage set: the market stall, the drab sitting room, the nightclub.

The outstanding work of the group and the entire show, though, is a relatively small painting of the bar of the Queen Vic pub. Focusing on a money box in the form of a white porcelain heraldic lion which sits on the highly polished veneer of the bar counter, McNab explores not only the physicality of that created world but the psychological essence of the programme and others like it.

McNab‘s fascination with the soap is born from a concern with the effect of the phenomenon on the minds of its viewer addicts. In McNab‘s hands painting becomes a critical metaphor, itself mimicking the effect of the soap, monumentalising the transitory to an iconic status. Accepting her recontextualised freeze-frames as ‘high art’, we begin to question how the series conditions us to believe in this fiction of a working class community and even more dangerously how our daily conversations about the soap displace any genuine issues within our own community in the real world. With Eastenders she tells us, with potentially tragic consequences for culture and humanity, the imagined has become more real than reality.

McNab‘s entire show she says is to do with ‘failed aspirations’. While easy to see in the Eastenders works, this is more obscure in the other two series here. That said these are certainly McNab‘s most easily accessible works to date. She presents us with familiar objects and invites us to see them afresh, away from Albert Square, focusing on flotation tanks and airline seats. The first, supposedly places of release and calm, exude a sense of menace. Their common relevance, however, is still somewhat specialised and it is within the latter that McNab really enters the common currency.

Using the palette of the corporate designer, she draws us into the wonderful world of economy air travel. We recognise the familiar cushions and head rests, the trepidation of take-off and disguise of bravado. The seats also have a curiously anthropomorphic character. One leans forward, another reclines, another seems almost to exhale. And so they echo the nature of their previous occupants.

Just as with the Eastenders paintings it is the missing who are the real subject. Or more correctly their preoccupations; from the dramatic tensions of a soap rooted in personal conflict to the inescapable anxieties of air travel. The similarities continue. Airline seats are symbols of our inherent, pathetic belief that somewhere out there is always something better. All we have to do is board the plane – or tune in to Albert Square. McNab’s message is implicit: you don’t need to visit another country, either over the rainbow or inside the TV. If you want to change your life, just look within yourself.