Alan Rankle Interview
Art Space Journal
Alan Rankle is a British artist, born in Oldham, Lancashire, England in 1952. He studied at Rochdale College, School of Art (1968-70), and Goldsmiths' College (1970-73). He is one of the leading artists of his generation to explore social and environmental issues of the day through Landscape Art. His first exhibition, held at the Institute of Contemporary Art, London, was a multi-media performance/installation based on Chaucer's The Pardonner's Tale (1973). Since that time he has worked primarily as a painter.
Rankle takes as his main subject the development of landscape art as a concept related to changes in attitude to the environment. In some works he treats the entire history of landscape painting almost as a found object; manipulating and cross-referencing styles and techniques from diverse periods and cultures, within a post-modernist fusion of abstract, trompe l'oeil, and figurative imagery.
Brian Sherwin: Alan, you studied at Rochdale College and Goldsmiths’ College in the early 1970s. Who were your instructors at that time? Also, can you tell us more about your early years - early influences?
Alan Rankle: My first tutors at Rochdale, Keith Chadwick and Rod Bailey, were a great influence on how I came to view art as being about the totality of one’s experience. They had a notion of an artist as a kind of lightning conductor for society, someone utterly immersed in depicting and commenting on all aspects of life. Although they were both sculptors they encouraged us to pursue projects throughout the spectrum of ‘disciplines’ - film, photography, painting, drawing, writing - and try to become competent in each.
At Goldsmiths’, Jon Thompson was pretty much on the same wavelength. In my first term he famously demolished the divisions between college departments so that as painting students we could work in this interdisciplinary way, cross-referencing ideas from one medium to another. It was a seminal time, the beginning of a new way of thinking about art and the role of the artist. This was the era of the exhibition at the ICA ‘When Attitudes became Form’ and I guess like most of the art students I was blown away by the art of Bruce Nauman, Bruce McLean, Robert Smithson et al. It was also the time Gilbert & George were just getting started and they created a lot of interest.
As well as Jon Thompson, my tutors at Goldsmiths’ were two great abstract painters, Albert Irving and Basil Beattie, who were immensely generously spirited and supportive. Michael Craig-Martin arrived in my final year, though he had already been a kind of presence there. The most lasting influences though would be the art historian, Iain Jeffrey, who curated British Landscape1860-1960 at the Hayward Gallery and the painter Stephen McKenna who helped curate the Caspar David Friedrich exhibition at the Tate. It was through them I began to realise there was a tradition in landscape art which could be subverted and expanded as well as followed.
BS: Alan, I’ve read that you once worked in the field of art conservation. Can you describe the duties you had? How did that experience influence your personal art? I assume that you learned a lot about art materials and how they interact while working in that field.
AR: Crucial as my experiences at Rochdale and Goldsmiths’ were, I left feeling I knew virtually nothing about the real practice of painting. It was as though in art schools there was a gap in what had been an oral tradition. Eventually, through studying paintings at the National Gallery I realised that Art Conservators still had all this knowledge about the Old Masters, their methods, materials and techniques and 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.
During the next few years I worked in museums and galleries and joined the Association of British Picture Restorers who used to meet in an upstairs room at a pub in Soho to listen to talks by eminent practitioners. 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 its immediate impact, reveals itself over time in an almost interactive way - that’s how I came to want my own work to be considered.
BS: Alan, in your work you explore landscapes. However, you create landscapes on your own terms, so to speak. These landscapes contain aspects of traditional landscape painting, but you also bend the rules to give a more contemporary feel. Through the years it seems you have bent the rules further still - combining aspects of nature with that of street art - paintings like Fraud come to mind. Can you discuss the motive behind these works?
AR: My work deals with the concept of a continuously evolving tradition which itself precipitates changes in the way we view ourselves and our environment. This is a big subject. For me it is also about re-defining what we take from other times and other cultures as a way of interpreting contemporary experience.
Around 1975 I became interested in the painting of the 17th century; Dutch, Italian, Chinese, through Ruisdael, Claude, Shih-Tao. I saw this as being the beginning of Modern Times, when landscape art particularly, began to be freed from official state or religious patronage. Of course since those times there have existed many extraordinary artists who have developed aspects of landscape painting into previously uncharted areas. Before and after Turner for example there were significant differences in how people viewed the natural world around them. Then, through Sargeant, Whistler, right up to the present day. The thing to bear in mind is that, in embracing the vision of Turner, you don’t lose sight of Claude. In viewing Whistler, you don’t abandon Turner. Experiencing Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer there is still Max Ernst. Styles are a lateral as well as a linear evolution.
The recent works you mention including ‘Fraud’, ‘Bloody’ and ‘Fuck Yo’ are from a series called ‘Strange Territory’ where the starting point is the interaction between the height of cultivated nature - fine architecture, parks and gardens, and the phenomena of inner city graffiti. It’s a work about alienation and not being a member of the society you are in the midst of. It’s also about being a stranger in a strange land and about the appropriation of power. This is an ongoing project which I am also developing in film and text.
BS: Alan, would you say that artists should strive to discuss environmental issues (and other issues for that matter) visually within the context of their work? Is it the duty of an artist to be political - to strive for change - to deal with issues in a way that may change or open minds? What is your opinion on that?
AR: Well, I am not about to say what artists should or shouldn’t do. For me, the social and political implications of the issues of the day are as much a part of my environment as the wind across the moors, or a tin can in a river, for that matter. I think it is important for an artist to try to document and re-present as much as possible their take on the totality of their experience.
Having said that, there are always things that are crucial to discuss. Art can precipitate a dialogue in ways that are not so easily assimilated as dialectic or reportage. Think of the impact of Finlandia by Sibelius or Picasso’s Geurnica, or Cleaning the House by Marina Abramovic.
BS: It seems that people are starting to really take notice of environmental issues. However, thinking and talking about it is just one part of the solution - there must also be action. In many ways you’ve taken action by the direction of your work and by exhibiting it so that your position on the issue is clear - yet so many people never take those steps. Does that cause great frustration or struggle for you? How is that reflected in your more recent work?
AR: The main thing I feel we all can do on this subject is to maintain a dialogue that infiltrates our collective consciousness, so that people begin to assume responsibility for their own environment. In 1990 I curated a project/exhibition "Earthscape" with Christine Goldschmidt where we actively looked for artists having what might be considered a positive response to environmental issues - seeking ways of influence and direction. The eventual exhibition, selected with the help of the writers, Andrew Graham-Dixon and Mike Von Joel, included among others Kaori Homa, Luke Elwes, Andrew Bick, Art-in-Ruins and Jessie Smith, all of whom grasped the idea of being in a position as artists to have an influence, however marginal, on current thinking.
The accompanying essay by Lynne Green was a landmark piece on art and environment. Nearly twenty years on, in Europe, there has by now been enough pressure to force all the political parties to "go green". A lot of artists as well as the visionary activists are, in many ways, responsible for this development. It is interesting how artists, writers, filmmakers and so on, seem to have their antennae out further than most politicians, though maybe this will change.
BS: Alan, it has been said that you take the history of landscape painting and use it as if it were a found object. Do you agree with that statement? Also, you have said that "Styles are emblems of the ways we can shift our attention" - can you go into further detail about that statement?
AR: The notion of the found object, the ready-made, has been central to avant guard art practice since Dada and Surrealism; yet to take this to one logical conclusion involves another concept - that of appropriation, which goes back a lot further. To just grab hold of a stylistic innovation by Claude, or Ruisdael and use it with the same regard (or lack of regard) that Antoni Tapies would pick up and use a mattress from a skip is precisely what Turner was doing. There is no difference. For me this is the true purpose of art history for the artist. This is the meaning of Arte Povera taken into the realm of ideas, and clearly has numerous parallels in music. You might consider Bob Dylan or Robert Plant in this light in relation to folk music. It’s actually how "tradition" operates. What is important is an artist uniquely accessing the unconscious through whatever means possible and what Allegeiro Boetti called "The Collective Psyche of Nature".
When we view a work of art we are informed about the world from within that "style". We focus our attention in a certain way to make the art work function. Juxtaposing stylistic elements from different periods and cultures is for me a way of creating a new narrative. The truly unexpected in art challenges habitual perception. Yet often even much ‘progressive’ art still operates within a predictable framework of audience response.
Consider the way we automatically suspend our sense of disbelief at the theatre. If the actors are all dressed in black say, and sitting on wooden crates in an empty space while doing Ibsen, pretty soon we accept it as a depiction of reality and that space becomes a drawing room and the crates become fine furniture. It’s the same with art styles; in ‘Cubism’ or ‘Pointilism’ you very quickly go beyond the style to enclose the work in a frame of acceptance. Those dots in Surat become the Seine, just the same as a photograph becomes the Seine. The point is that in allowing this we are shifting our attention into one single habitual mode. My work is to try to disrupt this automatic process, or at least to make it difficult to sustain.
At the moment, I am very interested in the works of Lorraine Berry, who operates a social environmental/political axis. Her pieces are subtly well informed and laterally thought out. The meaning in some of her installation and videos is utterly compelling and equally frightening, yet there is no lecturing or bombast. Sometimes I think the most quietly stated, slow and sustained art works can be the most provocative and influential.
The recent works I’m doing for the series "Formal Concerns" are essentially about perception and consciousness, and how we perceive landscape in the modern world. In paintings like ‘Landscape with Electrostatic’ there is a kind of collision of imagery - a pastiche of 18th Century landscape art is "interrupted" by a more gestural way of depicting nature as well as by elements of faux-realism and quotations from 19th Century Botanical Illustration. The idea being to create a multi-layered work which signals that Nature has a Past and Future which is discernible in the Present.
In terms of styles being emblems of the ways we can shift our attention, I want the viewer to have to oscillate from intellectual to emotional to visceral response. It’s about the interdependence of Nature and Consciousness. "Landscape with Electrostatic" could refer to the radiation polluting our environment, it could refer also to the "Chattering Mind" which the Buddhists require to be stilled in order to heighten perception and access an objective view of Reality.
BS: Why did you decide to take this direction with your work? Can you recall when you first thought, "This is what I’m going to do" ?
AR: Around the time of the S.P.A.C.E. show in 1975 I knew I wanted to really paint - and the subject should be my whole environment - places, people, memories, hopes, fears, anxieties ... My simple plan was to work with landscape art the way Francis Bacon worked with figures and portraiture - so at least my ego was intact! Having by then understood how great landscape painting had been in the past I felt that this particular genre needed to be re-vitalized, and restored as a crucial subject of immense relevance to the present day. I wanted to fuse the power and depth of classical landscape art with the spontaneous energy of Abstract Expressionism. I was also very interested at that time 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 a photograph by Hamish Fulton or a work by Richard Long was accepted as being authentic landscape work when landscape painting itself 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.
BS: Alan, you create prints and works on paper as well. Would you say that the knowledge gained from the practice of one medium can be utilized in other mediums? It is often said that an artist should focus on a single form of expression - in your opinion, would you say that advice leads only to error?
AR: I’ve never had a problem with transferring ideas from one medium to another, in fact it was the essence of the teaching at Rochdale and Goldsmiths’. It is always invigorating to go from one type of activity to another, from painting to printmaking, to video, to installations and architectural projects like the murals at St. Quentin-la-Tour.
Painting itself can be such an intense thing to do, it is good to be able to walk away and get involved in other things. The interaction between these forms works for me in various ways. I find that I can distil aspects of my painting into printmaking easily enough. The videos and installations are a way of working out ideas, like a blown-up sketch book. They provide directions towards creating new spaces to continue painting. One aspect of this is scale. While all art works come together through a fusion of intent and manipulative skills, there is clearly a big difference between one person doing a drawing and a team of people making a video or sculpture.
I’ve recently been making prints with Colin Gale at Artichoke in London, and I have to say it is a complete collaboration. Likewise the videos I make with Colin Gibson - one has to combine ideas and skills to produce the work.
BS: Alan, can you go into further detail about the philosophy behind your work? What is the message you desire viewers to leave with after having observed your work?
AR: There is no static concept in my work. It’s about developing a philosophy of transformation. Ideas have to change and respond to the times. In terms of art and the use of art I hope my works can retain the power to dislodge the habitual thinking that fetters us as individuals and in society. Using whatever means available to try to achieve this is the theory and practice of my work. As Shih-Tao put it: "The only real technique is the one that arises to meet the demands of the time."
BS: Can you go into detail about your artistic process? What sort of planning goes into one of your paintings? Do you do preliminary drawings? Do you map the landscape out in your mind?
AR: The gestation of my work is in sketchbooks. I tend to make a lot of notes, in words and pictures when I’m traveling or on a trip somewhere. Anywhere really. The Gare du Nord, the Yorkshire Moors, a café in Soho. I work particularly well on visits to the summer house at Rorvig.
Conceptual ideas are often developed in conversations with friends and my family and collaborators, especially if I’m working on a video or text. In terms of the large scale paintings and exhibitions and architectural projects there has to be a certain amount of planning, drawings, discussion. As I said earlier, I tend to use videos and installation as a way of working out ideas.
In the studio in Copenhagen I work alone on studies - small works and texts. In St. Leonards-on-Sea I produce all my large paintings with the help of my assistant and collaborator Angela Young, as well as other artists I might invite along to contribute to certain works. Angela has been working with me since the Terre Verte Exhibition in 1998. I rely on her judgment quite a lot.
At the other end of the equation there are my dealers, also curators and collectors who are often commissioning site specific pieces. They should be included really in any discussion of how the work comes into being. Some collectors, John Tham, for instance, and Stuart Cranfield, are patrons working with architecture who have a lot to contribute.
BS: Alan, what artists have influenced you? Is there a specific period of art history that inspires you?
AR: I’ve been influenced by many artists and periods, all pretty much documented and traceable in the work. On a practical level I’ve gained a lot from looking at the paintings of Michael Andrews, Francis Bacon and Bruce Kurland. In terms of being inspired, quite distinct from being influenced, I have always been attracted to high level gestural painters. I also like the raw energy of some auto-didactic artists, particularly Chu-Ta, Don Van Uliet, and Per Kirkby.
Don is probably my all time favorite outsider artist. Then there are some highly trained individuals who retain an ability to really connect with a primeval, visceral force - Antoni Tapies, above all. Wilhelm de Kooning, obviously; Cecily Brown inspires me. So does Julian Schnabel and Ornulf Opdhal. Do you know the drawings of Chloe Peine? She’s an awesome draughtswoman.
Inspiration is about finding the energy to work. If I am bored in the studio in St. Leonards I go next door to watch Chris Milton making those big drawings and collages. It’s always chaotic in there. The place looks like a bomb has gone off and he’s standing in the middle of it all, flailing his arms around, creating these astonishing images. Sheer energy. This is the type of art that inspires me.
BS: What are you working on at this time? Are you involved with any upcoming exhibits?
AR: I am working on a suite of paintings for an exhibition later this year at Guan Shanyue Art Museum in Shenzhen, China, which is being organised by Hans Alf of Galeri Køberhavn. The theme of these works relates to my first ever series from 1982 called "Endless River Landscapes". It references the influences of Classical Chinese Art on the European traditions within a context of contemporary issues in China. I’m also doing the preparation for a film in collaboration with Colin Gibson and my son, Jonathan Rankle, about the environmentalist, Tom Burke, which we hope to be shooting in the Autumn.
In May I’m due to return to my long term mural and installation project, St. Quentin-la-Tour, a 14th Century Castle in the French Pyrenees. This is a large scale work in painting and video which is based in part on a medieval illustrated manuscript called Le Livre de la Chasse du Gaston Phebus. It is about the transition in the countryside from Hunting to Conservation.
BS: Where can our readers view your work in person? What galleries represent you? Also, do you have a personal website?
AR: There are links to the dealers and galleries I work with on my website -www.alanrankle.co.uk
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the issues you fight for?
AR: Well, I like to think I make a contribution to the dialogue we exchange. We all have individual instincts and insights that are worth something, 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.