Alan Rankle : Wilderness Approaching
Visiting the blackShed gallery near Robertsbridge in East Sussex is quite an experience. A turn off an anonymous stretch of the A21 takes you down an anonymous country lane into an anonymous looking farm into an equally anonymous looking former chicken shed. The shed houses the gallery – hence the name. The adventure of getting there makes one feel much more than a mere observer. So it’s quite fitting that once inside, the revelation of the current exhibition Alan Rankle : Wilderness Approaching also pulls one out of the ordinary and into an otherworldly dimension.
Oldham born Rankle is most often defined as a landscape painter albeit with a mission to revitalise the genre by challenging and uprooting traditional ways of painting. True enough, he does paint iconic and powerful oils on canvas which reference Turner and other classicists. But, as this latest exhibition shows, Rankle is moved by the sense of otherness, the magic, brutality and wilderness of the natural world; and yet at the same time follows the formalism of his hero Francis Bacon. He paints as the romantic poets wrote verse. Wild, untamed, adventurous yet at the same time elegant, restrained and with perfect narrative form. Looking at some of these new works it’s as if Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan had come to life on Rankle’s canvas.
But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
One can almost hear the sound of the poet’s pen scribbling furiously, both poet and viewer standing on the same windswept Yorkshire moor as dusk sets. Few landscape artists, historical or contemporary, have the power of Rankle to drag the viewer so firmly up and along into the scene, so much so that you are left feeling mildly unsettled. You are not only viewing the work, you become part of it. I suspect if Coleridge were alive today he and Rankle would be drinking buddies, downing the next Absinthe chaser before a brisk walk across the wild terrain.
As Kenton Lowe, the enterprising director of the blackShed gallery enthusiastically tells me, Rankle has had a busy year with solo exhibitions in Canada, and Copenhagen as well as taking part in group shows in London, Milan and Bolonga. Each canvas takes weeks, sometimes months of layering texture upon texture until it is finished. However, it’s no surprise to learn that in the weeks leading up to this exhibition at the blackShed gallery Rankle had a rare period of space and reflection. The works exhibited were started, then left, then returned to, then left again, then worked on some more, until finally here they hang in a former chicken shed. This is some of Rankle’s most powerful and thought provoking work to date and the unusual setting couldn’t be more fitting for an artist who has never shied away from risk.
Rankle's Northern roots also play a large part in his visual narrative. From the depictions of moor and dale to the angry gestural splashes of colour emblazoned across the canvas. He often creates a classic topographical image and distorts and manipulates it to reveal a sense of a viscerally real place. For him the unstable environment we inhabit is inextricably linked to the brash politics and economic woes of our time. He wears his heart on his sleeve in much of the work in Wilderness Approaching, the title taken from a song by John Cale wherein a sign warns of "wilderness approaching, take great care" as though nature were another roadside attraction to view at a distance. This is perhaps most visible in City on the Edge of Change – a staggeringly visceral piece where a lone tree stands in what might be a river bed or what might equally be a scene of post nuclear devastation or the setting for a Scandinavian horror film. Only an artist as comprehensively gifted as Rankle could hint at underlying dark forces beneath outlying light and beauty. Across the canvas are scrawled the words: Falling Earth. In Enigma : Light of the World an unmistakably English moor and deep sky are daubed with eerie white splashes of paint, as if a tornado of angry light had passed across. And inWilderness Approaching – the painting from which the exhibition takes its name, a falling leaf and gestural sweeps of black warn of the impending storm which lurks broodingly at the back of the depicted moorland scene.
It’s only an hour’s drive from London and I urge metropolitan art lovers to make the effort to visit this exhibition at such a unique gallery. The experience of the blackShed is remarkable, but don’t be fooled by the simple exterior of the chicken shed. This new gallery under the direction of Mr Lowe is already making a name for itself with a series of shows by internationally recognised artists including Kirsten Reynolds, who works across a spectrum of painting, photography and installation and who's collaborative exhibitions with Rankle as Rankle & Reynolds have gained critical plaudits in Italy, Switzerland and Denmark where they have found a receptive audience; and Andrew Kotting, who was recently described on Radio 4's Front Row as the UK's best independent film-maker. The blackShed also presents younger artists currently receiving critical acclaim such as Robert Sample, a painter who is also reinventing classical tradition with his brooding and dark but strikingly fresh and modern takes on the old Dutch masters.
After the hype and gimicks of much in the contemporary art world, it’s genuinely refreshing to see painting being honoured as it deserves. And don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the received description of Rankle as a landscape painter. His politics, his urgency - are vital. His message is now.