The Sunday Times

What Lies Beneath The Image

By Colin Donald — Jan. 18th 2004

You still think western capitalism delivers on its promises of happiness and freedom? Hold that thought and visit Janice McNab‘s exhibition of new work at The Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh.

In 14 bare images, starkly simple but with more conceptual strings attached than an old style floor mop, the Aberfeldy born, Amsterdam based painter serves up a critique of modernity infused with the edgy wit, imaginative breadth and journalistic diligence that have made her one of Scotland‘s most internationally feted artists.

Trained in Edinburgh, Glasgow and New York, McNab, 39, will say only so much about the motivation for and meaning of these ominously bland and decontextualised images, sportively (and painstakingly) converted from photograph to paint. Her subjects include airline chairs, flotation tanks, the set of Eastenders devoid of actors or lights, and the fake beach at Center Parcs — ’basically a large shed full of sand’.

Isolation is a dominant theme, and she does not reject the suggestion that the psychic punch of these images stems from a kind of muted anger at how little people are prepared to settle for these days. That or how easily they are fobbed off. Three paintings of flotation tanks, bleak contemporary sarcophagi in which people pay good money to relax and experience one-ness with themselves, are entitled Meadow, River and Mountain.

Each of the images in McNab‘s new show are true to her trademark technique of drawing attention to their own suspension between the two media she works in, with loosely applied oil paint mimicking flash effects, the images framed to emphasis the indirectness of the object. An example would be the glimpse of the date grid of a calendar visible beneath an image of the scenic Highlands.

The technique is what the artist calls ‘foregrounded intentionality’, meaning the art part is in negotiating the tricky relationship between a photograph, which could be random or accidental, and painting, which is never either.

It is characteristic of McNab‘s persistence, and a kind of serendipity that seems to deliver ideal subject matter to her, that she managed to get access to the set of Eastenders. By photographing the deserted, unlit Queen Vic, and Pat Butcher‘s living room, she was meddling with the stuff of the nation‘s television dreams, precisely the reason that Albert Square is usually out of bounds to anyone but cast and crew. “I‘m not so much interested in the show itself as in the subtext. We know we are being sold crap, but it‘s easier to accept crap than reality.”

McNab‘s most iconically loaded image is of an airline chair, isolated and abstracted from any associations of aeroplanes. It typifies her ability to suggest that all is not as it should be. Where the jumbo jet passenger seat was once an image of comfort and affluence, following recent events it has become far more than an instrument of pleasurable escape. “When I discovered these chairs in a storage shed, they seemed to me to have failure built into them ...packed with cultural references... even to the electric chair.”

For her last large Scottish show, 2002‘s Greenock Factory Project at Tramway, McNab focussed her technique on human figures isolated from society by Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a disorder that amounts to an allergy to the modern environment) in this case triggered by chemicals released in the manufacture of microchips).

Her work seems to possess an edge of anger, even when depicting such seemingly innocent subjects as a Delftware china windmill. She agrees but laughs at an invitation to elaborate.