Scotland On Sunday

Real Life Delivered In Empty Wrappers
By Iain Gale, July 31, 2005

One of Scotland’s most outstanding painters has brought a whole new meaning to Chocolate box art.

Often, in art as in life, the smallest things contain the greatest messages. Over the past 100 years one of the major tasks of the artist has come to be to divine such messages in the apparently insignificant everyday object. This is the world of Janice McNab, a world of broken dreams in which we happen upon the evidence of mankind‘s pathetic attempts at enlivening the tawdry environment we have created for ourselves — attempts which, while they might offer short term solace, inevitably merely intensify the sense of loss.

Having dealt in the past with aspects of our hedonistic popular culture, ranging from flotation tanks and airline seats to the set of Eastenders, McNab’s perceptive eye has settled on another telling manifestation of what she has termed our ‘failed aspirations’. Where Blake saw eternity in a grain of sand, McNab has found enlightenment in a sweet wrapper.

At first sight her new series of paintings might appear to be semi-abstract landscapes. One in particular is reminiscent of the rolling mindscapes of William Johnstone, others of the sort of artwork that decorates 1970’s science fiction novels. And this is part of their significance. On one level McNab asks us to question the way we look at paintings. Why does the mind make sense of what the eye perceives? Can we, in the 21st century, after 100 years of abstraction, still expect to be moved by images of nothing? The answer is ‘yes’.

But we must also be aware that any such work has to be viewed in the context of the post-modernist critique and part of McNab’s talent lies in her ability to combine the old with the new. Get close to her works and you notice their sheer painterliness. Despite their apparent smoothness in reproduction, it is clear on first-hand acquaintance that her paintings are as far removed from photo-realism as they could be. McNab luxuriates in her work, using paint with Old-masterly confidence that is refreshing and unexpected.

Now look at the titles: Fruits of the Forest, Continentals, Small Belgian Creams. You might have guessed from the title of the exhibition. Chocolate Box Painting has long been a term of critical derision for images specifically intended to associate confectionary with love. This is a typically wry piece of McNab wit. For her own chocolate boxes offer no such romantic daydream. She opens the lid on reality. The apparent abstractions and lunar landscapes are no more than the moulded interiors of chocolate packaging. That horribly crinkly honeycomb of cups designed to keep each sweet perfect. And they are all empty. Someone has scoffed the lot.

They hang on the wall, iconicised tributes to over-consumption. There is something touchingly pathetic about the desolation of the empty wrappers, the implication this brings with it to a world in the grips of an obesity explosion, and their absurdly aspirational titles, that makes these works as successfully seductive as the very packaging they parody.

Extending this metaphor to the show’s secondary theme, expressed in three works based on the dimly lit details of a seedy hotel room, it is possible to detect a commonality in the wish to be somewhere else. The futile belief that be temporarily changing our surroundings or in the fleeting indulgence of eating a sweet, we might somehow improve our situation.

So vividly does McNab depict this flawed universe that, gazing into the dark abyss of Super Dark Swiss, we also get a frisson of an unwholesome, chillingly sinister sexuality. It’s clear that this is not just a show about chocolates.

In a direct progression from her airline seat pictures, McNab’s message, beautifully conveyed through realist painting — the ultimate language of deceit — is that, try as you might, you cannot escape the real world. In just 10 works, McNab, currently living and working in Amsterdam, confirms her status as one of the most consistently exciting, intelligent and important artists to have come out of Scotland in recent years.