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Landscape, light and meaning

Dr Laurence Bristow-Smith

Gates to the Garden, Gallery Sult,
March 2003
  It was somewhere back in the mid 1980s that I first saw and admired Alan Rankle’s work. In that time, his painting has developed in depth and complexity to the point where he can now be described as a genuinely original talent, staking out a piece of artistic landscape which is precisely his own.
 

Gates to the Gardern #8  2001
oil on canvas
102 x 102cm
 

The word ‘landscape’ is not idly chosen, for Rankle is essentially and obviously a painter of landscape. That, in itself, says something, for landscape painting over the last twenty or more years has not exactly been a fashionable pursuit. The conviction and dedication with which he has pursued his vision derives not only from personal strength of character but also from an absolute assurance that he has something important to say.

Let’s start with technique, for, if I am right, what Rankle has to say dwells in the how of his art as well as in the what – in the process of painting as well as the finished work. Underneath (and I mean underneath) Rankle’s most important and characteristic painting is a classic landscape. Ten years ago, these paintings were heavily influenced by 17th century masters such as Claude Lorrain and Jacob van Ruisdael. Today, one can detect both later artists, Valenciennes, Corot and Turner, and the workings of some of the Chinese masters. His 1998 series of Studies after Claude Lorrain seems to me to be just as much after the 16th century Chinese painter Jiang Song.
 


Chappaquiddik  2002
oil on canvas
122 x 152cm
Collection Anne Renton
 

On top of these elements of landscape comes Rankle’s signature – thick structures of paint, thin streams or spreading washes of colour, which transform what might have become a traditional landscape into something else. In terms of method, this overlay is the exact opposite of the landscape it transforms. It comes as a rapid movement or series of movements, risking everything on a few intense moments of action. This approach, as I have written previously, seems to me close to the approach of Chinese calligraphers – where a period of concentration is followed by rapid execution of a series of strokes. Not surprising, then, to find that Rankle has studied Chinese Buddhist thought and is a practitioner of Tai Chi Ch’uan.

So in a very fundamental way, Rankle manages to unify the western landscape tradition with eastern traditions of painting and thought. And it’s not the only area where he manages to bring together seemingly disparate concepts or ideas.

In terms of method, his precise rendering of natural forms is in contrast with the dramatic, spontaneous overlay. But, in terms of form and composition the two are in harmony. Riverfall II, a landmark painting from the early 1990s, was probably the first work to juxtapose elements of classical landscape with an emotional surge of colour in which he successfully balances the figurative and the abstract.

Nature for Rankle is all-powerful. Look at any of his major series, any of his major paintings. What is represented is natural – man-made objects do not feature. Even when he is at his most lyrical with, for example, Gates to the Garden (Hudson Study) or Chappaquiddik, there is always a sense of power within nature and that power is always expressed as the movement of natural forces – water, ice, rain, wind.
 


Gates to the Garden #16 Calder Valley  2002
oil on canvas
152 x 122cm
Collection Paul and Carly Davis
 

Within this framework of nature and movement, other elements appear. There is a strong sense of sexuality which in the early Riverfall paintings could be described as dark and brooding. This has lightened over the years, though there are still sudden dark intrusions of what can be interpreted as sexual energy in Gates to the Garden #16 (Calder Valley) and Gates to the Garden #2 (Hudson), both painted in 2001. This allusion to sexuality is part of the overall scheme of the natural world as Rankle portrays it, part of the rhythm of natural power.

And there are trees. Sometimes real trees, depicted in detail with boughs and leaves, sometimes the shadowed presence and suggestion of trees. Often they lean out, encroaching darkly on the scene from the side of the canvas, leading the eye into the main movement of the painting. Often in his work the centre of the canvas in not only the lightest passage, but the passage where the sense of movement is strongest. At the same time, the trees have a darker, more symbolic role, hinting at forces of darkness and stasis waiting in the wings in some kind of eternal opposition to light and movement.

Rankle has always sought to express the intensity of the emotions aroused by his various experiences of the natural world, but I would suggest that something in the nature of those emotions has changed over the years. With that change has come a development in his use of colours and an overall lightening of his palette. The Riverfall series, begun in 1992, were essentially dark paintings. Violent blocks of white are urgent emotional statements amid the dark, underwater blues and greens. By contrast, the focal area of light at the heart of the Rain + Waiting series and in many of the Gates to the Garden paintings suggests movement towards some mystical – even ecstatic – emotional centre. That centre, whatever it is, may be distant – even lost – but the painter and observer are constantly drawn towards it.
 


Further Tales along the Hudson #1  2001
oil on canvas
76 x 91cm
 

In this way, Rankle manages to move his responses to nature and to landscape from a personal to a universal level, imparting them with a mythopoeic quality clearly reflected in the title Our World and his use of Garden and Fall. Universality is something all artists aim for – the movement from the particular to the universal, however attained, is at the heart of all critical response. Yet Rankle is also a very contemporary painter. The emotional urgency of his earlier work, the sense of longing at the heart of the more recent series, are things that earlier landscape painters would not have understood. They reflect a modern world, a world which sees nature as polluted, damaged, even at times absent. In this sense, if Rankle were a traditional painter of landscapes, the absence of the man-made from his canvases would be unnatural.
 


Further Tales along the Hudson #2  2001
oil on canvas
76 x 91cm
 

Here, again, is that characteristic which runs throughout Rankle’s work: bringing together apparently disparate elements or viewpoints and fusing them to take both his own work and the landscape tradition a step further forward. He is a painter of landscape in a post-natural society who emphasises nature. He is an English painter of landscape, works largely in the traditional form of oils on canvas, is firmly based in the European tradition and yet is also strongly influenced by oriental thought and technique.

It takes a strong character to be open to so many different points of view and yet pursue one’s own chosen path with such determination – especially when many critics and a large part of the art world have written off landscape painting as dead. One of Rankle’s many strengths is that he can handle the contradictions. Ten years ago,
I wrote that his openness and inclusivity would prove a way of transforming and extending his native landscape tradition. I see no reason to change my mind.

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