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What this means

Tom Burke

Gates to the Garden, Gallery Sult,
London, March 2003

 

 

  Knowledge is different from experience. Knowledge is always fragmentary, transient, uncomfortable to hold, difficult to recall. Experience is whole, enduring, familiar, at home in our memory. We do not like the facts, nor trust them very much. They are elusive things, the facts, shimmering in the mind’s eye, always on the verge of slipping away. Our feelings have more substance. Trusted friends, they inhabit our viscera, sharp or solid, as irreducible as they are often inexpressible. Our knowledge we construct from the facts, but our experience is built with the bricks and timbers of our feelings.
 

Gates to the Garden (Hudson study)  2001
oil on canvas
76 x 91cm
 

Alan Rankle’s paintings are windows into a world of experience. Our early knowledge of the working of the human stomach came from a doctor treating the victim of a hunting accident. The gunshot wound that left a hole in the man’s abdomen allowed the doctor to watch the processes of digestion at work. Alan’s compelling, tortured, landscapes are just such a window through which to study humanity’s transformation of our natural environment. They allow us to comprehend the true plight of the planet in a way an encyclopaedia of hard, accurate information could not begin to match.

Rankle’s pictures are not primarily appeals to the intellect, though there is food enough for thought in their precise placing in the long tradition of English landscape painting. Rather, they are, first and foremost, aimed at the gut, intended to disturb your wa. They strike you immediately in the pit of the stomach and only afterwards in the mind. In this they are courageous, and more importantly, distinctive.
 


Gates to the Gardern #2 (Hudson)  2001
oil on canvas
61 x 76cm
Collection Jonathan Caruth
 

Far too many contemporary visual artists limit their ambition to provoking argument. Their works are intended to be read rather than felt; they are of the mind not the heart. They make small points in a striking manner. Rankle’s ambition is greater. He wants you to understand, all at once, what is happening to the world. His 2001 series, Gates to the Garden, is a potent recasting of one of our oldest stories.

We humans have not just eaten of, we have gorged on, the ‘fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil’. Humanity has acquired, quite literally, the power to act on an evolutionary and geological scale. We can make in minutes transformations of our world that have previously taken millennia. We no longer inhabit a Garden of Eden where we do not have to take responsibility for the fate of the earth. We are now the masters, not only of our own fate, but of the fate of all that lives.

But we have not acquired wisdom to match our new, god-like competence. Worse, perhaps, we remain ignorant of the consequences of its use, indifferent to the earth’s treatment in our hands. Ours is a wilful ignorance. Drowning in a sea of disconnected data, our attention diverted by the rivers of enthralling widescreen images flowing before our eyes, we lead lives of distracted illusion. Thoreau was wrong about most men leading ‘lives of quiet desperation’. If only! The truth is that most men, and women too, lead lives of small satisfactions.
 


Gates to the Gardern #3  2001
oil on canvas
91 x 107cm
Collection Private
 

Rankle’s images confront our indifference. They compel our attention. Our past, the present and a future are presented all at once in one un-evadable encounter. Our past as the familiar echoes of Claude Lorraine, Corot, Turner or the wildlands of Caspar David Friedrich.
The present is identified by a girder of engineer’s black, a smear of metallic yellow, a splash of industrial red – obscuring, disrupting, displacing, the natural, the known. An ever more likely future is announced as the broken trunk of a dead tree, a severed sprig of ivy, a single pallid butterfly – as drained of colour as they are of life.

These are paintings relevant to our times in a manner to which few other works of art in any medium aspire. Artists are workers in the kingdom of the imagination. It is their task to conceive the presently unknowable and make it accessible to the ordinary. The intensity of our everyday experience as we enter a new millennium seems to have cauterised the human imagination. Too few artists are willing even to attempt to transcend that experience. Rankle has no such fear.

His works throw a loop of imagination around a world we have yet to experience and make it accessible to us now. And, in making it accessible, they make possible its management. In 1947, I was born into a world of two and a half billion people. Today, I live in a world of six and a half billion. I may live to see eight billion souls on this small planet. The world into which I was born had six million elephants. Today there are six hundred thousand. I may live to see the last wild elephant die.
 


Gates to the Gardern #7  2001
oil on canvas
46 x 56cm
Collection Private
  These are facts. There are countless more like them. They mark and measure a world experiencing change on a scale unseen since the demise of the dinosaurs but at a pace never before matched. The facts inform, but they do not impel. It is an all too comfortable habit of humans to accumulate facts while drifting remorselessly towards whatever the future holds.

Knowledge stimulates contemplation, reflection, comprehension. Experience impels choice, decision, action. Rankle’s studies of the real state of the world are amongst the most profoundly political art works of our time. They are so political precisely because they are not didactic. There are no lectures here. Words divide as often as they unite. Rankle compresses the complex carbon of fact into a diamond of choice.

The future he presents so starkly is deeply rooted in our past and present. But it is not foreordained. We do not have to live in a world of dead trees and faded butterflies. We do have a choice. But we must make it. Churchill once said that ‘if something be not done, it will do itself, and in a manner that pleases no-one.’ Nature will indeed take care of itself. But it is not required do so in a manner that pleases humanity. Rankle challenges us to choose and choice is the beginning of action.

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