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Further Tales

Lynne Green

Further Tales
March 2002

 

‘The sublime in painting, as in poetry, so overpowers and takes possession of the whole mind that no room is left for attention to minute criticism.’

Sir Joshua Reynolds
Discourse 1790

‘I want to create works to precipitate a moment of forgetting and remembering; while remaining focused on the landscape as it changes.’

Alan Rankle (1993) quoted in Landscapes for the North 1996

 

To be a painter of landscape today is not easy. The history of art rests heavily on your shoulders (if you have any sensitivity that is), and the world appears to have lost interest in art’s magical, illusionistic transformation of the visible (whatever did happen to perspective?). You have to be brave, talented and probably engaged in a mission, to take on this monumental past and apparent indifference of the present. Alan Rankle is all of these things. There is no doubt that he allies himself with a specifically landscape tradition. He has retained too, that breath-taking ability of the painter to translate the three-dimensional world via pigment applied to a flat surface, into an image we can identify with and recognise. But he is not content with illusion, nor should he be, for art has moved on. The revolutionary insights and technical innovations of the 20th century are part of his heritage too. Rankle’s personal innovation is to successfully marry the vocabulary of historical landscape painting with the liberation of emotion and acknowledgement of psychology implicit in abstraction.

Rankle is an exciting and engaging painter, by which I mean that he delights as well as surprises. His control of his medium is clearly evident – he is a consummate artist, who handles paint wonderfully. On the physical level these are luscious and sensuous works of art, in which the artist’s hedonistic love of his medium and of the act of painting is central to their meaning. The connotation here of an underlying sexuality is relevant too. Rankle approaches his subject and his translation of it as a participant, not an observer. In his various statements, he constantly reminds us that far from being separate from the natural world, ‘we and all our works are nature. It’s the rhythmic pulse of intrinsic energy that connects us to the landscape’. Human sexuality is simply a manifestation of the creative and regenerative forces of Nature: the landscape and its rendition in art have often served as a metaphor for our sexual identity. Everything changed after Jackson Pollock declared ‘I don’t paint nature. I am Nature’, because he meant it.

Paintings by Alan Rankle reward prolonged contemplation, for they will reveal more of themselves only gradually, over time. They are challenging too, because they do not conform to our expectations of landscape art. Rankle’s visual language fluctuates wildly between the representational and the abstract (most often within the same painting), yet this does not imply confusion or lack of continuity. Rather, the fusion of historical and modern vocabularies is convincing, but we can never be complacent – the intention is to disrupt casual or habitual readings of the imagery. Nothing can be taken for granted; these are images that require an active, creative response from the viewer. Rankle in effect marries the control of representation with the freedom of the abstract gesture, to generate a new vocabulary for the genre, and with it create a powerful statement that is laden with contemporary resonance. His experience of a given moment in front of a particular landscape is the starting point for a creative dialogue between emotion, memory, association, art’s history and his medium. Rankle is a contemporary man, his philosophy, his socio-economic and political concerns, are likewise born of his own period. His paintings are in large part meditations on the importance of the natural world (to the individual and the collective) as the repository of spiritual meaning, as well as on the increasingly destructive relationship we as a species have with it. When he paints the post-industrial northern landscape of his childhood he can’t help but sense the scars beneath his feet. In essence there is nothing new in this act of embodiment, Rankle is very aware that throughout its history landscape painting has been the vehicle for philosophic, political, and economic meaning. The natural world long ago became a lexicon of visual metaphors for our aspirations and passions.

Rankle’s reveries are not however, maudlin – his money is on Nature as a force to be reckoned with. There is nothing tame and acquiescent in the landscapes he chooses to paint. If an epithet is required to locate his aesthetic categorisation of Nature, then it must be in terms of the Sublime: by definition, experienced before Nature in its wildest and most awe inspiring state. (More Caspar David Friedrich than John Constable.) For Longinus, the unknown 1st century author who first defined the term, this was nothing less than a manifestation of the grandeur of the Divine Intellect that ‘irresistibly uplifts the souls’ of men. For others (most notably Edmund Burke in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1757) it had more to do with psychology: a sense of beauty being aroused by that which attracts, while the disturbing and unnerving arouse feelings of the Sublime. Reflecting current attitudes to the natural environment, landscape painting of Burke’s 18th century embraced the concept as he defined it. The contemporary, primarily English, notion of the picturesque (worthy, that is, of a picture), lay somewhere between the Sublime and the beautiful: it being defined in terms of ‘roughness, sudden variation and irregularity’. By evaluating the more unruly and uncomfortable aspects of Nature (which appears then to have been accepted as encompassing humankind), in terms of aesthetics (as pictorial themes), the darker aspects of experience where rendered palatable – hence the application of the term ‘picturesque’ not only to landscape and landscape art, but also to images of the rural poor. Rankle takes this philosophical inheritance in his stride – and knowingly refers to it in the individual painters or styles with whom he chooses to conduct his art historical dialogues.

At a moment in art when sensation is the key word Alan Rankle’s challenge to our perception of what painting has to say in the contemporary world is, by comparison, almost genteel. A revolutionary he may be, but a polite, unassuming one. Painters and painting are no longer considered the showstoppers of the art world, yet for most of history, what they said and how they said it reflected – often presaged – our development as a species. As a painter, Rankle has to be aware of art’s history, and in particular the evolution of landscape painting. Rather than abandoning this tradition Rankle has chosen to engage with it: he teases it apart, using what he admires, rejecting what is no longer relevant, in order to create his own contemporary statement. If he had been content to continue the tradition as he found it, he would be a copyist, but reproduction is the last thing on his mind. He seeks instead – as those before him did – to innovate, develop and expand the language of his art form, and in this he is successful. As a painter of landscape (I am aware of only one painting of an urban subject), he acknowledges, pays homage even, to the venerable lineage within which he works. But his relationship with history is one of interrogation and reappraisal. He is engaged in a constant dialogue with the past, with the art of different periods, cultures and representational codes. This heady mix encompasses the language of modernism (in particular that of American abstract expressionism), landscape luminaries such as Jacob van Ruisdael (1628/9-82), Claude Lorraine (1600-82), Jean-Baptist-Camille Corot (1796-1875) and Joseph Mallord Turner (1775-1851), as well as 17th century Chinese Ch’an (Zen) dry brush painting.

On one level Rankle’s relationship with these and other artists is one of enquiry followed by quotation (the highest form of flattery). He uses signature brushwork (as in the 17th century manner of depicting trees) as part of the grammar from which to construct his painting. Passages of stylistic quotation also establish, as it were, his artistic credentials – he is a skilled limner. Moreover they are both a foil and (literally) a backdrop to his gestural abstraction, where paint is set free from the constraints of depiction. The artist allows his paint to find its own level as he applies it thick and swiftly in a stroke, or as a translucent veil over the image below. The orientation of paintings clearly changes as they are worked on, for there are often drips and spills of paint running in opposite directions. A further dialogue is now taking place: this time between historical styles.
A history of painting is précised here. The eclectic nature of Rankle’s references reflects the complex, multi-cultural world in which we live, his calligraphic gesture owing as much (perhaps more) to the Zen Masters as it does to abstract expressionism. The Zen notion of what he calls ‘the illusive moment’, when the kaleidoscopic nature of experience comes together in a single focus – in his case as a definitive gesture – is close to his intention at all times.
In pure landscape painting, figures where they occur are intended to establish scale and to evoke our empathy. In Rankle’s work, which is singularly devoid of the human form – though not of human presence – the detailed rendering of an insect (a moth perhaps, or dragon fly), a sprig of ivy or leafy twig, serve a similar function. They anchor our perception and excite our sympathy. They provide, too opportunities for virtuoso passages of painting; in the musical sense, that is, of technical skill expressed in special effects. Rankle’s extensive experience of working in trompe l’oeil obviously stands him in good stead. There is virtuosity too in the apparent fluidity (with its implication of speed) of these complex and hard won images. It is clear throughout his work that it is important to Rankle that the facture of the painting – the evidence of its evolution and of its making – is revealed. He employs the illusion of close representation when it suits him, but he is concerned too, to establish the physicality and the ‘object-ness’ of the painting. These images are the result of prolonged engagement, as the artist layers his activity in a metaphoric equivalent of the multiplicity of their references and meanings. Representational elements, a tree or perhaps a distant church spire, function as signifiers that establish his subject: they are code, a shorthand that signals ‘landscape’. As clues they also locate us – we know what we are looking at, but not for long. For having established our understanding, he disrupts and challenges it, as he changes the pace and the style of his painting. The tranquillity of delineated, controlled passages evoking the natural scene are suddenly disturbed by the arrival of a noisy, dramatic cast of characters. Rankle’s independent abstract gestures usually denote the arrival too of an equally dramatic change in colour key. Colour becomes the vehicle for emotion rather than representation.

Alan Rankle’s appropriation of art’s history parallels our collective relationship to his subject, for ‘landscape’ is itself an appropriation: it being concerned with shaping and organising Nature according to artifice. Concepts of orderliness, contrived wildness and the like, have shaped the natural to our own ends. In turn landscape painting is also an act of appropriation, representing its subject according to the conventions of art: its language, its selective, contained and constrained view. In fact the notion of ‘landscape’ is in the first instance a construct of art, more specifically of 17th century painting. The word is derived from the Dutch ‘landskip’ or ‘landskap’ – terms intended to distinguish the depiction of inland scenery (so called ‘view painting’), from other genres. Prior to this, the depiction of landscape in painting was largely employed as ornament or backdrop.

Our idea of landscape is, then, rooted in art and artifice – in the manipulation of the world. Since it first emerged as a distinct subject worthy of the attention of art, it has been weighed down with collective and individual symbolism. It is an idealised, cultural and aesthetic object. It is also an economic one. Our perception of it is determined culturally, historically and politically – in short our relationship with it is entirely subjective, driven by our own imperatives. In today’s western world it continues to be imbued with powerful metaphors for the majesty of god, for our higher, spiritual selves and for the natural man. It represents our lost innocence – the garden where we might yet reclaim Eden. One just has to tune in to Teletubbie land, presided over by a cherubic sun-baby that gurgles and smiles benevolently upon softly rolling hills, perpetually blooming flowers and frolicking bunny rabbits, to know that the myth of the Arcadian idyll is still very much alive and well.

As a mythic construct landscape is both the repository of our souls and the refreshing balm that enables us to sustain our curtailed, urbanised, un-natural, lives. It mediates our relationship with the world around us, and represents an idealised version of that relationship: in landscape there is a return to Nature, and to harmony with ourselves and the world. (Just think of the adverts for Center Parcs.) In practical as well as mythic terms landscape is the repository too, of our hopes for the future; its continuing survival is a barometer of our ability to survive on this planet. Its fluctuating well-being and patent vulnerabilities reflect the tenuous hold we humans have on life. Far from being anachronistic or backward looking, the engagement with landscape as a subject for art in the 21st century carries a potent, urgent contemporaneity.

Acknowledgement of the continued symbolic, metaphoric and practical value of his subject is central to Alan Rankle’s intention as an artist. If a political element exists (he is an Environmentalist), then it is implicit in the celebration of Nature’s power and splendour, rather than explicit in any comment on ownership and misuse. He is concerned too to reveal Nature in all its aspects, and in so doing challenges notions of prettiness and tameness, and subverts any comfortable associations. In his landscapes Nature (and by implication humanity) is revealed as moody, volatile and potentially dangerous – there is fire in the belly of the earth, not just quietness and solitude. Individuality is dwarfed by incalculable power. There is an edginess in Rankle’s paintings, a restlessness that is in part to do with the artist’s own vitality – which is clear in the evidence of his making. These are primal, visceral works of art that growl or purr, according to mood. The rhythmic pulse Rankle detects in the landscape undoubtedly beats here too.

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