ABOUT SURFACE AND DEPTH: ARTIST JANICE MCNAB IN CONVERSATION WITH TEUN VERHEIJ, THE ROYAL ACADEMY OF ART, THE HAGUE (2010)
Upon entering the studio of Scottish artist Janice McNab, who works and lives in Amsterdam, I notice the sparseness of the interior, as only a couple of sketches and big paintings fill the whitewashed walls. Visiting somebody’s studio always feels like a privilege (which it is) so I sit down timidly and look around as Janice makes me tea.
Janice (1964) is a friendly woman who speaks calmly and eloquently about her practice as an artist. As a painter, she is most original in putting her ideas into shape. Her paintings are executed with an uncanny precision and share an eerie feeling of detachment.
Janice talks about her interest in the idea of taste, what is good taste, what is bad, the codes that define social positioning. Growing up in a remote rural environment, she tells about how the intricacies of this took her by surprise as an adult and that she has always felt undone by the complex social algebra of it all. Social anxiety and the outsider were to become recurring themes in her work.
JM: Ten years ago, my painting had a far more documentary nature. One project, ‘The Chemical Sensitivity Project’ looked at a group of people for whom these aspirational norms had been completely removed. Overexposure to everyday chemicals, often in the workplace, had left these people multiply allergic to the invisible fumes that surround us in our everyday lives: fuel, fire retardant, cleaning liquids, Cosmetics… They had in fact become allergic to the Twentieth century and found they had to live restricted lives on the very margins of society. My paintings documented the homes, or safe-houses, that they made for themselves.
I found with my documentary work however, that the stories were playing a more dominant role in the interpretation of the paintings than I really wanted. For me, these paintings were metonyms for wider issues and to make that clearer, I took a step back with my subject matter.
So her artistic interest moved slowly in the direction of surfaces, screens, the veil of a society that needed one.
JM: Screens and surfaces interest me because they cover something but also disclose themselves. There is a very literal relationship with the idea of the superficial. A painting is also a screen.
In 2005, she started painting curtains and screens. Soon afterwards, she moved to painting close-ups of the plastic trays inside chocolate boxes, in a way that made them also into kinds of screens. Her most recent paintings show small sculptures made from ice cream, but then enlarged to a human scale. The grotesquely formless blobs of the cheery-coloured substance really seem to stare at me.
JM: This new one looks like a portrait from the Romantic era to me. I am interested in Romanticism because of the way human emotions start to be overtly explored at that time through the depiction of material forms. My paintings of chocolate boxes are intended to be contemporary Romantic landscapes, but then landscapes of culture, of consumption, perhaps of superficiality.
But that is just one layer to it. I wanted to know more about her work process.
JM: Do you think of your work process as more of a mechanical translation of a concept or maybe as something less tangible, something that touches more on the field of inspiration and experiment?
JM: One of the reasons I like to paint rather than make art in other ways is because of the lucidity of painting. There is nowhere to hide. Even if I decided to make a ‘mechanical translation of a concept’, I would still have to do it by hand, and any attempt to remove my handwriting and make it look more mechanically made would also be visible in the painting, and contribute to its meaning, almost in contradiction of the removal of the person that ‘mechanical’ implies.
When we look at a great painting in a museum, the art historical readings of it don’t really seem to account for why we are moved by this great painting, and not the next one. Knowledge, taste, identification, and desire are all combined in our looking. They are also all part of my working process as an artist, which is always an experiment. In the very simplest terms, my work process is motivated by curiosity. ‘How would it be if I did this?’ The result is always a surprise in some way or another, and these discoveries lead to the next thing I try. James Elkins puts this very beautifully in his book ‘What Painting Is’:
“Paint records the most delicate gesture and the most tense. It tells whether the painter sat or stood or crouched in front of the canvas. Paint is a cast made of the painter’s movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts. The muddy moods of oil paints are the painter’s muddy humors, and its brilliant transformations are the painter’s unexpected discoveries. Painting is an unspoken and largely un-cognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artist responds in moods. All those meanings are intact in the paintings that hang in museums: they preserve the memory of the tired bodies that made them, the quick jabs, the exhausted truces, the careful nourishing gestures.”
TV: Interesting. This might be the sort of subject any artist should contemplate, boiling down to the central question: how do we know what we’re doing?
JM: Well, we don’t. By the time I come to make a large painting there has already been a lot of preparation. I will already have experimented with lots of models, and then chosen one photograph of one model, from a pile of hundreds. I will have made at least one small oil sketch of that, in order to investigate how it will work as a painted image. During this process I will have thought a lot about what I hope to achieve with the work. So in one way, I do have a plan, I do know what I am doing. And when I actually make the painting, I use the same small range of paint colours and thinners that I have used for years, so I also have some idea of what my materials can do. But when I start something new, even with all this planning, I am still trying to create something that does not exist yet, and how the painting will actually turn out is still a bit of a lottery.
TV: You seem to have a lot of control over the making of the image. Why are photos that important?
JM: Painting and photography are very different ways of recording an image. If photography is an index of the real, then painting is essentially fiction. It is somehow important to me to suggest that the things I paint really were there, and I like the photographic traces that are left in my work, they seem to merge the idea of the document with the metaphor of the fictional. There is also the question of transcience. The photo holds a moment and allows me access to it to build up my slow paintings. This is particularly relevant with the new ice-cream paintings. I can mine the photo over and over again for information on the surfaces I want to translate. It is not about making a copy, it’s about making a translation.
TV: So when do you know when to end the process, to say: there is nothing else I can do, it’s finished?
JM: It’s finished when it is solved. When I have got rid of the incongruities, the parts that do not add to the integrity of the whole thing, and when that thing has somehow achieved an emotional resonance.
TV: Can a sketch also be a work for you?
Janice shows me some pieces on paper. One is an oil sketch of airplane seats left alone in some indefinable space, the other is a charcoal or graphite drawing of some more chocolate boxes, abstracted to a structure of quivering lines.
JM: Most of these only serve to help me to start the actual paintings, but some of them do turn out to be works in themselves.
TV: I agree. How do you handle failure and frustration?
Janice pulls out a big canvas of another ice cream sculpture.
JM: This one failed. It is complete but I hate it. Something went wrong in the planning; I didn’t really resolve what I wanted the work to achieve and it got lost. Sometimes success and failure follow right after each other. I spend a lot of time in the studio and of course it’s inevitable to fail sometimes. I don’t think this one can be saved anymore. Frustrating, because of all the time that went into it. Not succeeding is part of studio practice though. Nothing turns out quite as I hope, there is always that compromise and the hope to do better next time. Chasing that better thing is probably what keeps me going.
Two years ago however, I took a break from painting. I stopped believing in the better thing and then there wasn’t any point. I got it back though.
TV: And that’s when you started with the new series. So it is going well?
JM: (laughs) Yes I suppose so. I’ve found a new starting point now I think.
TV: Did you still maintain a certain continuity in your art over the years?
JM: I hope so. I think there are continual recurrences, both thematic and painterly, as the two always intertwine.
Janice started in a more conventional way of selecting her subjects and portraying them. This developed through many digressions in realistic painting to a new form of expression that makes eerie landscapes out of domestic motifs. Her interest has always pointed towards the forgotten, the left out, and the disposable things that surround us, meticulously freezing them into a state of permanence. Janice’ paintings transform the miscellaneous and the unnoticed into monumental scenes.
JM: I like it that we’re talking about the long term aspects of my what I do. With most artist interviews it is always about the next exhibition and one body of work is discussed. It is good to have a little bit of perspective on how these past projects are influencing things to come.
The most difficult thing I have learned over the years was to have the confidence to express myself. I listened to an interview with Lou Reed the other day, and he said that the difficult thing about writing a song was to get the ‘me’ out of the way in order to let the song come out. That seems like quite a good way of putting it.
TV: What thoughts do you have on the future of your art?
JM: I am always hoping to expand my artistic language, so it becomes more personal and more flexible. And I am always trying to improve technically. I find painting very difficult. What I might actually make, I don’t know.