The Chocolate Box Paintings, by Ken Pratt (2008)
‘Chocolate box painting’ is the term we use to write off sentimental images of the past, often the rural past. These rose-tinted idealizations of country poverty developed alongside the industrial revolution, and came to define a life that never was, first to urban Victorians, and then to generations of Cadbury’s Chocolate buyers and jigsaw puzzle aficionados. Janice McNab, an artist who grew up in the picturesque Scottish Highlands, has taken our shared knowledge of such imagery as the critical starting point for a series of paintings that seek to define something of our current blind consumption of the natural world.
McNab’s Chocolate Box Paintings are created from models the artist has constructed out of the empty plastic trays in boxes of sweets. She has photographed these models and used the photos as her source imagery. This extended process inserts the language of advertising into the final painting, with its concentration on packaging, light, and a constructed environment. In the synthesized floating world of advertising imagery, what we are really looking at is always slightly unclear, and these paintings balance on this ambivalence. They are in one way straightforward records of photographic aesthetics, but the viewer is continually returned to the essential fiction of their painted surfaces, and so to the historical fictions they reference, and to the way they suggest the more troubling fiction of our relationship with nature today—our seemingly unbreakable belief in its endless plenty. Plastic food trays are what is left over from ‘plenty,’ and The Chocolate Box Paintings are the dark after-imagery of a landscape and world that is broken by over-consumption.
The difficulty of seeing what things are, and the social anxieties this establishes, and which can be personified in our objects, are key themes in all McNab’s work. The unsettling quality brought about by the artist’s careful aesthetic choices reminds us of André Gide’s remark that: ‘In the realm of emotion, the real is indistinguishable from the imaginary.’ McNab’s Chocolate Boxes affectively suggest both hope, and sadness—for a world where everything is packaged, the unpackaged, such as an ‘authentic landscape experience,’ often being the most packaged thing of all.