Tanja Elstgeest, The Changing Room, Stirling (2005).
“In response to the superficiality of the mass media, it is the duty of the contemporary artist to restore the broken links between our consciousness and the world.” — Bas Heijne
In the summer of 2004, we staged the exhibition De Werkelijkheid (‘Reality’) in the Vleeshal in Middelburg with this idea of the Dutch writer Bas Heijne as the starting point. Janice McNab was also invited to participate in this exhibition. In the writing which was the inspiration for the show, Heijne formulated a new task for the artist: that they should help us escape from the ‘unreal reality’ which is presented to us every day via the image and information culture. Through their work they can bring us into contact with another, more direct and sublime reality, in order to help us close the gap that has emerged between man and his environment.
McNabs series The Tank Paintings formed part of the exhibition Reality. These depicted ‘flotation tanks’, which are filled with warm salty water and designed to offer people the opportunity to isolate themselves temporarily from the constant stream of impressions fired at them. McNab shows the tanks in the empty, closed spaces of treatment rooms, with only a small chair and a towel next to them. The cool design and the closed character of these images seem to have a suffocating effect, rather than offering the relaxation the treatment is meant to provide. McNabs paintings make it painfully clear that these exclusive lifestyle-products are in the end as banal as the reality from which they offer escape.
Developing these ideas further, McNab became fascinated with the packaging in chocolate boxes. She presents them as science-fiction-like landscapes, shiny and rolling, in close-up, stretched out over the whole surface of the painting. A recognisable and yet alienating pattern which seems meaningless at first, but is nevertheless an everyday part of our lives. Empty luxury wrappings as proof of our excessive consumption. An implicit reference to excess and, perhaps, to the western struggle with obesity as an indication of the relativity of the things that occupy our minds. Wrappings and boxes veiling a certain emptiness. McNab also introduces the idea of national symbols. The titles of some of her paintings refer to countries that use chocolate as their trademark, with a slightly ironic commentary by the artist. The painting of the chocolate box from ‘white’, expensive Switzerland is called Super Dark Swiss and the chocolate truffle box is called Small Belgian Creams. Surely, the title Continentals also articulates a certain form of exclusion. Yet, the subject matter of this series of works is too absurd to read a truly political meaning into these titles. The light-heartedness of the images does not allow for such an interpretation. And so the viewer is left somewhat bewildered. Can a painting still carry meaning in today’s world?
The art of painting is slow in nature. Given the acceleration of the means of communication and representation, the painting as an object seems to have become almost obsolete. Janice McNab, however, uses the medium rather as a foothold, a rock of ages, which forces the viewer to look longer and more exactingly at our products, objects and their parts, and which forces us to think about the representation of forms. McNab analyses and deconstructs the beauty, banality, form and meaning of objects and products, and portrays them without letting the representation diverge too much from the original. Her images are never unrecognisable, but rather over-recognisable.
McNab takes many photographs of the subject she wants to portray. After that comes the process of selecting and looking for the right framing and cropping. Only when she is satisfied with the final construction, does McNab pick up her brushes and catch the image of the photograph in oil. She works meticulously and yet fast, in order to avoid too many layers of paint and too strong a presence of a long painting process. Because of this method of working, her paintings do not tend towards photorealism at all. The incidental details of the momentary reality captured in a photograph, the fall of light on an object or a dust particle in the air, are edited by McNab in the painting process. Her colour palette is relatively limited and, through that, a clarification of reality is achieved. What is left are solid, strong images of objects and products, which are presented unadorned to the viewer and where the surface of the painting is an essential part of the representation. In her latest series the materiality of the paint and the board clash with the smooth and temporary character of the shiny chocolate trays. It is as if McNab wants to emphasise the possibility that the representation will last longer than the original.
But McNab does not take herself too seriously. She gives a knowing wink with her work to the sometimes precarious position of art as a consumable. Her latest series is therefore called The Chocolate Box Paintings as a reference to the whole genre of romantic landscapes, cottages with roses round the door, windmills on idyllic canals that are found on boxes of candy and chocolates. Her own landscapes are much more abstracted and less romantic. The only real landscape in her exhibition, entitled The Model, shows a group of topiaried hedges and trees: an image of nature sculpted by human hands, which relates perfectly to, for instance, the blue tinted forms of Seashell Selection. In her painting McNab seems to transform her cynicism about the world into a product that has a certain beauty and durability. In this way she indeed succeeds in fulfilling Bas Heijne’s wish. She forces the viewer to become aware of the ways of seeing things and to really relate to what these paintings are and what the images could mean. This is what makes her work easily transcend the real chocolate boxes, whose only purpose is to briefly draw your attention in order to seduce you to buy the product, empty it, and throw it away. A good painting does not seduce, but demands a more lasting relationship.