When I met Alan Rankle at his studio overlooking the English Channel, his grasp was affixed to something a little more tangible than the ungraspable world of Nature. Four floors up his latest work, a large 3 metre canvas entitled 'Caerleon II' was hanging precariously through the faded blue goods doors of the Victorian warehouse loft studio which is his base when working in England.
Two men used ropes to slowly, hand over hand, lower the swaying artwork past rusted drainpipes and sharp ledges piled high with seagull and pigeon s**t. The artist, who had momentarily disappeared, emerged from a side door on a rooftop three floors down, arms flung up to receive the painting. The entire process was repeated the next storey down as I watched with hands over eyes in anticipation of disaster. In the end the piece was carried safely into a waiting Luton van and onto its new home in Cornwall, the private gallery of John Tham and his actress wife Jenny Agutter, major collectors of his work. Through several layers of bubble wrap I caught a glimpse of seascape and headland that was unmistakably Cornish in its wilderness. But the picturesque vista was transformed
by rigourous and unexpected layers of abstract colour. It’s this dramatic combination of pictorial realism and gestural technique that creates in his work the convincing narrative of elusive topography, which his collectors find so compelling.
The canvas loading drama had tempted several people out of a pub opposite his studio to look. Given this it’s perhaps unsurprising Rankle encourages the act of viewing his paintings to be a participatory performance work. He invokes the manner in which early Chinese landscape scrolls were used as a social ritual. He himself puts it as the “linking ideas of esoteric conceptual art to the rich matrix of historic gestural painting”.
Oldham born Rankle grew up on the edge of the moors and the wild landscape of the North has remained central to his work, which he now refers to as Landscape Painting Project, for almost three decades. He studied at Rochdale College before moving to Goldsmiths’ and London in 1970. His sweep of silver hair and long black coat gives him a slightly professorial appearance, further reinforced by his habit of holding his mobile phone inches from his face and squinting over spectacle tops to reply to a text.“I’m getting used to the bi-focals” Keeping track of multiple exhibitions, viewings, dealers and collaborat- ing artists is a busy business.“Very busy,” he says.“I travel a lot.” That might be a problem for some people, but Rankle has adapted to the challenges: “I tend to make a lot of notes, in words and pictures when I’m traveling or on a trip somewhere. Anywhere really, trains, airports, the Yorkshire Moors, a café in Soho . . I work particularly well on visits to the summer house in Rørvig, Denmark. One of my galleries is in Copenhagen and my partner Patricia Holmberg is also there so it’s become my main base.”
In European art circles Rankle’s standing is steadily rising and in recent years he’s had two major retrospectives; one at the newly redesigned Gallery Oldham and the second at Milan’s Fondazione de la Stelline. 'On the Edge of Wrong' his collaboration with artist Kirsten Reynolds with whom he works as Rankle & Reynolds recently came to the Brighton Festival, having been shown to much critical acclaim in Rome, Milan, Copenhagen and Lugano.
A further development of this work with Reynolds is set to be the inaugural exhibition at a new contemporary art space in Nyborg Slot, a 16th century Danish castle. Rankle also has upcoming solo shows in Canada and Hong Kong.
In the UK he is, for now, less well known – a fact that Rankle himself is at something of a loss to explain. But some of his early influences offer clues as to why foreign audiences are so receptive.“I was very interested in 17th century Italian and Dutch landscape art and in the use of gesture-as-symbol you find in the best Chinese painting. As far as I was concerned, aged 23, this was the coolest thing anyone could do. Looking back, I guess I was slightly indignant that landscape painting had been consigned to a fringe genre in the uncertain hands of old Royal Academicians and Sunday painters. This was something I decided to change.”
Perhaps, unsurprisingly when I ask him what he thinks will be the major influences on the art world over the next decade he replies: “Well probably the contemporary art of China.” He explains: “When European art was still hidebound by superstitious religious rules, Chinese artists were making sublime, emotionally resonant landscapes which conceptually helped create a particular exploration into the relation between ourselves and the wider world. They did so in a way that recognises our role in nature a long time before anything like this was possible in the West.”Now after years under an oppressive regime there’s a tremendous resurgence of Chinese art. Again it’s not surprising to learn that one of his dealers has recently started to represent him in China. For Chinese collectors he comes with the cachet of having introduced the influence of Ch’an and Taoist arts to European landscape painting, an esoteric approach they can truly appreciate. Rankle suggests we continue the conversation at his local, the Horse and Groom.
We settle into a dark wooden booth with what Dave the landlord tells me is Rankle’s preference, a bottle of Chianti. With the raised eyebrow of a man who’s pulled a pint for one artist too many (St. Leonards-on-Sea with its cheap seaside studio spaces and history as an artistic haven,
is home to an astonishing number of painters, writers, musicians and film-makers). Dave informs me that Rankle is “the most bohemian person in St Leonards.” From the look on his face I don’t think he means it as compliment.
Rankle is visibly relaxed now the trapeze act with his painting has gone off without a hitch, and I ask him if being on the coast with its burgeoning art scene is a bonus, and how I imagine he has been something of a mentor to some of the emerging artists. He explains: “It’s important to me to work with young artists in the sense that I remember exactly how much it meant to me getting started to see some artists work as it was being made. It meant even more to be encouraged and taken seriously.” He has mixed feelings about his own art school days: “Crucial as it was to have been at Rochdale and Goldsmiths’ at such an extraordinary time, I left feeling I needed to know more about the real practice of painting. It seemed like there had been a break in an oral tradition to do with painting as an art, which meant any sense of the relevance of virtuosity had been lost.”
He continues: “Looking at paintings at the National Gallery, I realised art conservators possessed a huge understanding of the old masters, materials, techniques, which I wanted to know about. I started hanging round restorers’ studios - and then working for them, as well as frame-gilders, old picture dealers, anyone who could help me develop an understanding of the breadth of
painting as an art.”
In the years that followed Rankle often worked in conservation for museums and galleries.“The great thing for me at that time was to be able to have an original work by say Turner or De Wint in my studio, often for months on end. It made me realise how a great work of art, as well as it’s immediate impact, reveals itself over time in an almost interactive way - that’s how I came to want my own work to be considered.”
In that context I ask him if the headline grabbing days of Brit Art had damaged that sense of longevity of attention required in the contemplation of a work of art and if it was difficult for a ‘classical’ painter to stand out amid the hyped up frenzy of fashionable art collecting .
He nods “Well the work I do takes a long time to complete. I don’t make works in massive quantities to attract the interest of the type of dealer and so-called collector who wants to immediately turn the art into a commodity. As a result I make comparatively small exhibitions and when the pieces are collected they tend to stay collected.”
“Keeping track of where the paintings go I’ve always been able to gather works together to create occasional museum exhibitions but in these recessionary times it’s more difficult to connect with people though publicly funded shows. I’ve had two large scale exhibitions I’d been in the process of curating for Regional Museums pulled in the past two years due to government cuts, one in Manchester and one in Milan. But as he pours us both another glass and pauses for thought he says: “The art world is rapidly changing. There are a lot of artists around the world making work of visceral merit which is reinvigorating the potential of art as a transforming catalyst in society”.
It’s clearly that visceral appeal which Rankle seems to be striving for in his work and which implies he is determinedly setting out to achieve longevity.
As he puts it, “The privilege of being an artist is for these contributions to remain visible. We try to leave each other clues towards somehow dealing with the unknown. This is art.”