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Light + Meaning

Imola Antal

Light + Meaning
Galleria Seriola
Tampere, Finland
9th May - 28th May 2006

 

 

  Throughout the past decades, artists have found the subject of the landscape inspiring for the versatility of the subject: whilst it could serve as emotional outlet, spiritual elevation, cognitive instrument, it could also take the shape of a purely aesthetic object, double as practice of draftsmanship or exercise for the inherent potential of the materials. The resulting image could be, on the one hand, aesthetic, unreal and atmospheric or, on the other, material, pulsating and textural. In all these respects, Alan Rankle's new series of small scale paintings 'Light and Meaning' vouch for the admirable maturity of expression which the artist has reached in the last decade. In his bold compositions, no larger than 30cm square, colour becomes light and marks become movement, both indispensable forces which shape our natural environment.
 
    Nature or landscape as a subject and form of painting has been a practice often overlooked by theorists of contemporary art. Similar crises occurred throughout history when classicist or realist tendencies favoured 'higher’ genres such as portraiture, historical or social painting etc. Nicholas Alfrey attributed the renewed 'fall from grace' of landscape painting in the twentieth century to several determining factors. These range from the loss of prestige of watercolour, as the medium with which landscape would be traditionally associated, to the artificiality of our natural environment brought about by modernisation. In Britain, the disappointing outcome of this process of decline was the fact that landscape became a mere vehicle of 'nostalgia and escapism' at the beginning of the past century.
 
    However, the liberation instituted by the modernist avant-garde in the 1950s brought about a new way of looking at nature which still fuels the work of contemporaries like Alan Rankle. By discovering a strong empathy for the outside world, this new generation of artists has adapted the modernist aesthetic to their own creative vision and recent work holds a reliable promise that the genre will indeed continue to survive and thrive. What is more, nature abstraction could potentially become a surviving from of painting as activity, in the wake of recurrent alarming predictions about its imminent decline within the contemporary the visual arts. But what are those redeeming features of the new landscape painting which could help salvage itself and perhaps even the practice of painting, at large? The answer lies in its ability to render an alternative reality, a virtual safe haven which we could mentally access at times when the strain of objective living is overwhelming. The effectiveness by which the artist manages to transport us into this world depends upon his inherent ability to recreate the natural attributes of the outside world with the materials available to him, so that we viewers may sensorially relate to them in the closest way possible. Rankle achieves this best not by representation, but by visual intimation.
 
    Space. Alan Rankle is working with a type of lyrical abstraction in which he exploration of the pictorial space, of its surface and depth gives birth to diverse and fresh means of execution; the fact that his paintings transmit a message, apart from that of gesture itself, becomes an added delight for the viewer. There is an intriguing world within the frames of the painting waiting to be discovered. It seems that for Rankle it is not enough to produce self-sufficient forms which would dictate the logic of his compositions, according to the conventions of modernist abstraction. Instead, the outside world filters into his abstracts, which are infused with mystical, romantic connotations. A whole new space is created which we may enter and explore by means of our sensibility. Rankle, like several other contemporary British abstract painters working with nature imagery, is far less concerned with rendering a very definite 'sense of place' or locality. In this respect, his work has little to do with that of previous generations of landscapists, like the quintessentially English post-war 'Neo-romantics', for instance. Rankle's work is probably then more closely related to the lyrical style of mid-century St Ives abstraction or going further back, with the sublime Romantic moodscapes of William Turner. At any rate, Rankle's painting should be considered more of a universal emotive response to the landscape, than a record of real location.
 
    From a stylistic point of view, the works in this exhibition can be considered from several angles. Firstly, we have those displaying recognizable visual landscape prompts, usually pasted onto and floating on backdrops of atmospheric colour. These are referential clues which we may still cling to, possibly as a first step on our journey from natural space into pictorial space, from reference to a more self-reflexive abstraction. These hints can range from dark tree crowns reminiscent of those framing Claude Lorrain's immense horizons in idealist seventeenth-century landscapes (e.g. Plate III), to carefully rendered, graphic recordings of organic elements, often twigs, branches, tree trunks (e.g. Plate V). The latter bring to mind Surrealist vistas, particularly Yves Tanguy's dreamy mindscapes, where the clearly defined (if not realistic) foreground props, trick the eye into believing into their palpability, only in order to enhance the mystery of the unfathomable depth in the background.
 
    Secondly, we have Rankle's trademark Turneresque moodscapes, which have been the focus of the artist's work for some years now; it is the atmospheric painterly approach of these works which the artist handles with most confidence and flair. Images such as Plate II, seem to be made of tinted vapour, delicately blown together by a skilful air painter. Shrouds of transparent pigment spiral upwards like a whirlwind, creating a vertical dynamic, a visible density in the centre of the picture. Meanwhile, other, more material surface marks, drip and flow down the front of the canvas, reminding us of its two-dimensionality. And we do need reminding, because it is very easy to lose one's gaze in the merging of water, air and wind, the natural forces very cleverly suggested by Rankle's mastery of oils.
 
    Thirdly, we have autonomous exercises of gesture, colour and light, which Rankle himself sees as experimental sketches. The excitement which comes from working in a new, free manner can be clearly sensed in the passionate brushwork of works such as Plate XVI, Plate XVII and Plate XXI. The gesture is reminiscent of that of artists of the last generation of Abstract Expressionists, such as Paul Jenkins, or the more textural works of European abstract artists, such as the Spanish Antoni Tapies. Rankle's works as much about medium and material, as it is about image and mood. Oil paint is used to its full expressive potential: from its layering in translucent veils, to the application of thick, impenetrable bands of pure pigment. Processual pieces such as Plate XXI are very much about brush mark, texture, splashes and smears of paint, about dried on crusts of oil. Though Rankle focuses a lot on surface treatment and the process of picture-making, instinctively he is still concerned with spatiality. This attempt to create space is possibly unintentional and much more stylised: the composition is structured geometrically, each form being 'filled' with paint of a different substance, density or pattern. However, the end result is very much the same as in his more atmospheric or lyrical pieces: there is a dark frame opening onto a window, and within this window there is a mark - in this case the hovering lemon yellow streak - which is meant to establish a middle distance between the frame in front of it and the indefinite distance behind it.
 
    Movement. Even at their most tranquil, Rankle's abstracts convey the feeling of slight shifting, pulsating, barely perceptible movement. Whereas in Plate I, for example, we are immediately transported in the centre of Turner’s vortex, works like Plate IX remind us of Paul Jenkins's Phenomena, and the latter's organic veils of vapour. Meanwhile, there is also movement in pieces such as Plate VI, where we infer heavy drifting clouds mirrored in the murky water below, often seen in the less figurative work of Michael Andrews, such as his Thames series. In works such as Plate VII, a very striking dynamic is obtained by seemingly capsizing the composition and eliminating the horizon line. Whether movement comes into the picture horizontally, vertically or diagonally, it is always very present in Rankle's work.
 
    Light. The critic and landscape painter Adrian Stokes wrote in his 1937 study 'Colour and Form': "The tendency of true colourists is to discount the separateness of illumination, to identify it with the colour of objects so that these objects appear to be self-lit 'm virtue of their colour, as if breathing. Whatever the specific illumination represented, light in the form of living colour also seems pre-eminently to come from behind, from the back, from the canvas." Stokes made a distinction between 'surface colour' and the perception of a 'specific illumination', the true colourist being he who is able to unite these two expressions in the work of art. The discovery of the atmospheric landscape is attributed to the sixteenth-century Venetian masters, who used precisely this technique of creating an inherent light source which would illuminate the picture from within the picture; they achieved this by painting darkly on light grounds and applying oils in multiple glazes. Their advance was that they used colour not in order to create brilliant, superficial surface reflections, but imbued local colour with a light and life of its own.
 
    Rankle's work, especially his more atmospheric and lyrical pieces, show a very apt orchestration of the two, i.e. light and colour, and his achievement lies in the fact that he manages to equate the two means of expression. Local colour is turned into an effective source of light, which seems to be radiating from within the picture. In the series 'Light and "leaning', this is visible in the pieces which best investigate the spatial qualities of paint (e. g. works from Plate 1 to Plate IX). For instance, at a first glance, Plate VIII could be catalogued as a mere study of brush marks and colour, yet the skill with which light is diffused throughout the picture means that we cannot help taking Rankle's sketch seriously. There is a tendency to physically approach the canvas as close as possible, transfixed by its deliciously tinted glow. The sources of light are multiple: the most obvious one is the bright red patch in the centre, surrounded by yellow, burning against a cool, dark backdrop. However, there is also a deceptively brilliant vertical streak of light yellow along the right margin of the picture, which, by being projected upon a dark ground and against the central light source, immediately becomes a reflection. This accent almost looks as if generated by a source from outside the canvas and has the effect of rendering its surface glossy.
 
    Colour. In 1958, Lawrence Alloway introduced a group of American and British painters (coined by Elaine de Kooning as 'abstract impressionists'), who pioneered the reintroduction of reference and sensorial correspondences with nature into their abstractions. He remarked that these painters deviated from mainstream abstract expressionism by the fact that they were either abstracting from the natural world or simply discovering it through the sheer process of painting. Alloway wrote: "Just as we read marks as space, we read colour as light, because no surface can be seen unless it is illuminated, however faintly. Colour as light inevitably implies space and it hollows pictures with a meteor's flash or a petal's drift. This means that colour can be separated from the scientific and pseudo-scientific colour theories with which modern art used to be saddled (Delaunay, for example)." Robert Delaunay, a precursor of geometric abstraction, preferred the term 'pure painting', which emphasized the strictly conceptual role of colour. The latter was in this case completely devoid of reference and its abstract play existed merely for aesthetic, formal purposes.
 
    The 'hollowing' of the picture plane, on the other hand, as probably best rendered in works like Rankle's Plate I and Plate IV, is created by an entirely different approach to colour. Although figuration is out of the question in Plate IV, colour is still very capable of creating a foreground, a middle ground and a background, in other words, explorable space. The strong vertical reddish-black brushwork on the right immediately conjures up the mental imagery of dark, shaded tree foliage, whereas the more neutral translucent orange on the left brings us a step further into the picture, whilst also framing the opening to the light in the centre. The airy, delicate hues of the lower middle suggest a vast horizon, but the main attraction of the picture has to be the strong light inundating the landscape from above. No science went into the execution of this piece, but feeling, on the one hand, a very intuitive feel for colour, on the other, a strong, loving empathy for nature.
 
    Rankle's images are still visibly landscapes due to the fact that there is a 'right way up', an appropriate angle from which we would like to contemplate them. There is still a sense of grounding, of solid matter against the light airy vapour of the atmosphere. There is also still very much a feeling of depth to these images, even though some of them try to resist through surface treatment, texture and visible traces of the technical process which brought them to being. In spite of the latter, the viewer can still fully absorb their airy, mysterious depths. The foreground foci, distracting phantoms of landscape details, manage to hold our gaze for only a brief second before it can no longer resist the urge to plunge into the mesmerizing vista behind, eager to explore the space of the painting.
 
    The language of Alan Rankle successfully carves its path into the future of painting. His art is a significant merging, a unifying process through which the individual attempts to regain a close rapport with the universe surrounding him. Although respectful towards the contribution of his predecessors, his approach is perhaps the closest one can get in contemporary art to pure, unmediated emotion as a personal reaction to the environment. In this respect Rankle's painting is unconstrained by conventions of the past. His subject is still the same, the starting point is still nature. However, in contemporary painting, the means of communicating the artist's empathy towards nature rely now solely on intimate perception, visible in a unique style which changes and develops in as many ways as there are artists attempting it. Abstraction has allowed this freedom, but Nature has also allowed it. It took artists this long to understand that She had granted them full permission to use Her as a means of discovery. In Unquiet Landscapes, Christopher Neve sees natures as "a means of expressing crucial truths about the human condition." He finds that "it is not just the setting for man which provokes him to various reactions; in painting it is man. [...] Nature represents in some way the artist’s essential nature." In actual fact, landscape painting enables access to a whole catalogue of truths: Nature's own eternal truths, those hidden in the artist’s consciousness, and, ultimately, the truths within each one of us, those which we unravel when contemplating a painting of nature.
 
    Landscape painting, in the traditional sense of the term, is indeed over. It had to reinvent itself. No longer naturalistic observation, or mere visual delight, for the contemporary painter, it has become a tool of self-discovery, whilst remaining at the same time an autonomous, idiosyncratic means of aesthetic manifestation, tailored to its individual creator's needs. Landscape has been fully appropriated by all of us. The artist, our creative representative, chooses to turn it into a lyrical interpretation, which is a telling sign of our times. Times of quiet, solitary introspection in a racing world. Times of melancholy and the desperate urge to flee, physically and mentally from the cold material objectivity of urban life and the need to seek the beauty of the natural world again.
 
    Rankle acknowledges this new series of paintings as progressive miniatures for more extensive upcoming projects. Therefore, the images from the 'Light and Meaning' series open as promising windows on the future output of the artist. They represent inquisitive optical and chromatic investigations, prompting us viewers to sit up and eagerly anticipate the progression of his beautifully tinkling lyrical intros into full-scale, resonant hymns of nature.
 
   

Imola Antal is a researcher and lecturer of art history. She has a BA in Literary and Visual Studies, English and German Language Studies. For her MA, she researched European modern painting, more precisely, the influence of Matisse on British Pop Art and colour theory. She is currently writing a PhD on Landscape and Abstraction in British Painting as well as working on turning a book on contemporary British painting into publishable material. The latter focuses on a present generation of British abstract artists developing new trends within the existing tradition of the landscape genre. Their work stands for the emergence of a new sensibility in the contemporary cultural climate of the visual arts in Britain. For the past five years, Imola has been teaching modern and contemporary art history, theory and criticism, part-time in the History and Philosophy of Art Department at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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