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Landscapes for the Fall

Anthony Wallersteiner

Terre Verte,
Danielle Arnaud / Clink Wharf Gallery, London
3-26 April 1998
 

And now the mythless man stands hungry, surrounded by past ages. The tremendous historical need of our unsatisfied modern culture, the assembling around one of countless other cultures, the consuming demand for knowledge - what does all this point to, if not the loss of the mythical home, the mythical maternal womb? 1

We have replaced the Dionysian life of the spirit, the sacred dimension in life, with a vision of the universe based on Schopenhauer’s World as Will, blind energy in an endless round of meaningless materialism, parturience, and death. The eighteenth century Enlightenment assumption that history tells the story of technological. material and even moral advancement has been supplanted by a recognition that ever increasing industrial production, consumption and other erroneous notions of progress have merely served to force civilization towards new levels of violence caused by frustrated and unfulfilled expectations. The “mythless man” of the industrial west suffers from a sense of metaphysical homelessness and is plagued by an immense nostalgia for a mythopoeic world in which he can once again feel himself to be part of a sacred framework of cosmicity. Modern man has plundered and polluted the Earth on a far greater scale than at any other time in history because he no longer feels himself to be part of the natural world and is unable to recognize at a fundamental level any absolute identification with it. In recent times this recognition of crisis in man’s relationship with his environment has engendered a renewal of interest in the land as subject.

Alan Rankle’s work poses an unusual challenge to those who seek to explain and interpret it. He is essentially a conceptual artist who works within an expanding referential framework of historical landscape art. He offers us a landscape vision through a prism of fragmentation, refraction and disruption which suggests a way of resolving the conflict between the depiction of an objective reality and the artist’s subjective need to reshape the given world. He articulates the return to objectivity through abstraction and exploits all the historical possibilities of the landscape tradition by entering into a complex dialogue with the representational codes of landscape art from different periods and cultures:

From the mundane to the sublime, landscape art is a continuous thread throughout history, woven into the fabric of how we think and feel. While styles may come and go they also mirror profound changes in the way we perceive our environment. In the light of present day environmental issues, landscape art has an increasing relevance that transcends stylistic variations and critical conten­tions.2

His earliest experience of painting was going to Oldham Art Gallery when he was about 13 years old. The paintings that impressed him most were the watercolours in the Lees Collection - particularly the works by the two great rival geniuses of British landscape art ­Turner and Constable. If Constable introduced expressive naturalism to British painting, then Turner must be seen as the father of the psychological landscape. Constable painted nothing but the truth - above all the deeply personalised landscape of his native Suffolk:

There is room enough for natural painture. The great vice of the present day is bravura, an attempt at something beyond the truth ... Fashion always had, and will have its day - but Truth (in all things) only will last and can have just claims on posterity.

Turner’s range encompasses a Wordsworthian sensitivity for the ordinary scene as well as a Wagnerian conception of the grandeur of nature at its most romantic and sublime. A contemporary account describes how Turner began his watercolours by saturating the paper with wet colour, then, “like one possessed”, scratched, scribbled and scraped everything into an apparently chaotic state until, “as if by magic”, the motif emerged. Rankle quickly understood how the twin possibilities embodied in Constable and Turner could be reconciled. He is both a poet, seeking moving and dramatic effects through the interaction of colours, and a painter who keeps the motif in front of him, exploring it with all the insistence and honesty at his command.

Rankle’s imaginative transformation of his genius loci, the landscape of the north, echoes Constable’s “painting is with me but another word for feeling”. The specifically local and topographical recollections of the northern landscape of his childhood provide a constant source of his imagery, the activating prompt to imaginative discovery and plastic invention. His paintings reveal the timelessness of the northern landscape, its ability to sustain and regenerate life, its capacity to absorb and integrate all of man’s efforts to either harness its forces or exploit its natural resources.

The paintings in the Riverfall series represent re-workings of a single theme: that of a sudden encounter with a dark edge of water - a pond or river - on the outskirts of the city. A place reeking of desolation and the potential energy of decay, the meeting of urban and rural landscape.

From the initial images i wanted to reach into a depth of greater memories, like those of childhood, or the images from a dream; calling up an illusion of real topography.

Throughout his career Rankle has used composite and double images which function on both a sensory and symbolic level: the dark womb-like pools sheltering in the feminine contours of the landscape; the naturalistic trees interrupted and surrounded by strongly gestural swathes of thick paint and dribbling glazes; the organic, metaphysical interiors which possess a luminous radiance that appears to emanate from deep within the works themselves. He interweaves psychological preoccupations with information drawn from specific aspects of his environment. A wintry tree may simultaneously pay homage to Jacob van Ruisdael’s Pool in a Wood, serve as a symbol for the tree of life with roots plunging into hell and branches touching the sky, while also recalling the sixteenth century deforestation of the Yorkshire moors to build the Tudor navy. His use of reds and orange might evoke the exact sensation of a golden twilight in the “Picturesque” manner, but these colours are also used to represent the rusted and abandoned detritus of post-industrial decay. At the same time Rankle is acutely conscious of the need to perpetuate in some form of imagery an inward spiritual urge to a higher and more complete existence:

It is that same feeling of being confronted by the awesome scale and sense of the absolute in nature that compels artists to try to catch that elusive moment where the mystery of the landscape reflects their inner feelings and then try to make it their own. 6

His most recent works reflect the ethereal, floating, translucent quality of Turner’s painting. The paintings do not project us into the landscape so much as detach us from reality, the rhythms of paint transporting the viewer out of the material world and into the poetic realms of the associational and subjective. Recognisable images of water, a threatening sky, a darkening moor are diffused by waves of translucent colour filled with pale light The dialogue with Turner has been extended in recent seascapes such as Turner in Hastings which depict the miraculous quality of light on the East Sussex coast composed into a turbulent vortex of land, sea and air. The Flame series recalls the watercolours that Turner painted from memory after watching Parliament burn down on the evening of 16 October 1834. These small pictures, painted on steel, glow with the same shimmering incandescence and prescience as Turner’s Promethean visions.

Rankle developed an interest in American Abstract Expressionism whilst a student at the Rochdale College of Art. He recalls his excitement and enthusiasm when he discovered the existence of an entire group of painters who had emancipated themselves from spatial illusionism and traditional figure-ground composition. The important thing was for painting to give expression to images of individuality and not simply allow the spectator to look for congenial likenesses and reflections. Artists like Motherwell, Twombly and de Kooning conceived of painting as an adventure, without preconceived ideas, making fidelity to the act of painting their central concern. Rankle’s aim is to transform the traditional landscape composition and translate it into his own personal language. He uses broad, sweeping, gestural brushstrokes, a sense of personal encounter at the picture surface and the abandonment of illusionistic depth so that he can arrive at his own empathetic identification with the rhythms and forces of nature.

All painters are aware of the mysterious judgements - one might say inner demands, which determine, quite independently of any consideration of actual representa­tion, the sense of “rightness” of the painterly gesture as the work proceeds from moment to moment.

However, while the thrust of American expressionist painting is towards intense, unpremedi­tated, flat, non-representational images, Rankle’s obsessive desire to retrace the full experience of a multi-dimensional world might seem almost perverse: his images are not free-associational or the result of spontaneous enactments of feelings. He goes through an elaborate informing process, collecting and sifting information, making sense of the landscape as well as his own passions, thoughts, anxieties and sensual experiences. In order to translate his emotional responses he has trained himself to select relevant information and then bring the variable elements together to form a coherent image.

Rankle’s conception of the artist is shamanic, he is an alchemist capable of discovering the nature of materials, transforming substances and releasing meaning. He admires Pollock’s calligraphy of consciousness and shares his intuitive sense that pictorial space, at its most basic, involves a balance between what is seen and what is hidden, the abstract and the figurative, the contemplative and the impulsive. The more closely one looks at the drip paintings, the more one perceives figurative elements emerging from the swirls of paint, apparitions glimpsed behind skeins and loops of colour, and then disappearing into thin streaks of paint: “The drip paintings speak of a oneness ... the merger of opposites: the image and pictorial ground become one, the gesture and image become one, drawing and kinds of writing become painting, and finally, the work of art is the ritual process.” Rankle’s representations perform in a similar manner. It is often difficult to decide if what we are seeing is appearing or disappearing, being pulled out of the paint or obscured by it. Fluctating between objectivity and abstraction, the ambiguous effect prevents illusionism and, at the same time, directs attention to the ‘subject’.

Many modern artists have been influenced by Eastern philosophy and art. Antoni Tàpies became interested in Eastern art through an early interest in the structure of matter, problems of space, time and causation. His close feeling for the materials used in his art - paint, earth, sand, marble dust, and glue - brings about a transformative presence of spirit in matter. Like Beuys, he re­directs attention to the elemental dimensions of existence, to the animistic integration of self and world. Much of Rankle’s landscape work is informed by his experience of Chinese art. At Goldsmiths’ he wrote his BA thesis on the Origin and Development of Early Chinese Landscape Art. He became interested in Taoism, the Chinese philosophical system which encourages the individual to still the ego and its desires in order to fully experience the great rhythm, or Way, which lies at the heart of “the ten thousand things” of the world. Crucially at this time he began studies with Dr Lui Hsui Chi and began practising Ch’an techniques of thought and meditation embodied in the martial art T’ai Chi Ch’uan.

T’ai Chi functions as a bi-polar unity. One pole is charged with yang energy and the other with yin. These two poles exist in a constant dynamic opposition that gives rise to the infinite transformations that create the universe. Rankle’s consistent claim that his seemingly abstract and semi-abstract works are always representational emphasises the dualism which lies at the heart of his painting process. He is engaged in a constant dialogue between movement and stillness, balance and asymmetry, total harmony and deliberate juxtapositions of clashing colours:
a supreme Taoist saying is that one produces two, two produces three, and three is the manifestation of all possible beings. Rankle’s paintings reflectthe meditative side to Zen, butthere is also the element of shock connected with the idea of nothingness, the Eastern concept of emptiness that lies at the heart of all things:

“I’ve come to regard it a task as an artist to reveal the receptive Yin phase of movement, in order to restore a sense of balance, to show the need for a stilling of habitual thoughts and help regain finer dynamics of equilibrium -the harmony that prevails - in our actions.” 10

Whilst most modern societies possess space by building and organising it mainly in terms of material objects and utilitarian functions, the Taoist philosophy values the freedom of nature which transcends the authority of rulers and man’s attempts to harness its energy:

The landscape is out there for all of us and even in the most urban or suburban environment, the world retains its power. It’s all the Natural World. Associa­tions of human power, property and prestige, arise, naturally enough, through the ownership of objects, yet the irony implicit is very telling. If you consider an Emperor’s garden or a medieval cathedral - actual ownership apart, these immense projects came into being through a collective consciousness.

Ch’an and Taoist ideas embody deep-lying truths and eternal symbols, a constant awareness of powerful forces in nature and a recognition of the insecurities of life.

In the Riverfall series I’m interested in adapting the use of Ch’an and Taoist precepts within the vocabulary of European landscape art in its relation to my own experience. The entire history and potential of landscape painting is here taken to function as an object trouvé. I regard reappraisal, through the disruption of tradition rather than its abandonment, as a crucial act towards a present day renewal of landscape art. 12

Anyone accustomed to European categories of art might detect a contradiction in Rankle’s emphasis on renewal and his interest in set themes, fixed forms, symbols and tradition. We are now all too much inclined to value an artist’s achievements by the extent to which he has broken free from the forms and themes embedded in tradition. The 4th Century poet and painter Ku K’ai-chih set the tone for Chinese landscape painting and its subjects from his day to ours:

In the spring the lakes are full of water,
In summer clouds gather round the mountain tops,
In autumn the moon shines in all her splendour,
In winter the snow displays its beauty on the mountains. 13

Rankle’s use of archetypal images has much in common with the precepts of Chinese painting. A tree, for example, is often represented by a small drawing of a twig in one corner or at the edge of the picture, surrounded by blank space. The viewer is forced to reconstruct the whole tree and imagine the process of natural growth, seeing the power of nature in relation to the entire cosmos. By returning to these key images again and again, examining both the thoughts and emotions thrown up at the moment the image was perceived and the sense of awareness which develops out of prolonged contemplation, Rankle takes us beyond the ego-centred consciousness and into the unitary realm of archetypal and transpersonal experience. The formal composition of the works convey the impression of a frozen detail, suspended in time, and results in a sense of unreality and loss,

At the core of all of Rankle’s paintings is an emotional germ, which he has experienced in a particular location. In order to re-create that sense of place with its attendant emotional echo the artist draws freely on imagery ranging from the pre-historic to the post-industrial. Often he seems to plunge into the depths of the collective unconscious, sampling fragments of paintings by the seventeenth century French and Dutch masters as well as the conceptual works of Beuys and Turrell. It is a technique familiar to anyone who listens to contemporary music - house, hip hop, jungle, drum ‘n bass. By remixing, scratching, overlaying and dubbing the art of the past he is able to create something completely new.

The intrinsic connection between, say, early English watercolourists and a modern conceptualist like James Turrell, has always seemed to me pretty easy to grasp. It’s that same feeling, being confronted by the awesome scale and sense of the absolute in nature, that compels artists to try to catch that elusive moment where the mystery of the landscape reflects their inner feelings, and make it their own. 14

Rankle reaches back to the primordial images which might best bring mankind back to a unity with nature in an age when man’s actions constantly threaten the natural environment. He sees the artist as a modern shaman, compensating for “the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present” by performing rituals and magical acts for the better health of society. Like Beuys, he performs “anthropological art” and admires the visionary, ecological commitment which informs works such as the “social sculpture" 7000 Oaks. 16

For the paintings in the Riverfa!I series Rankle has sampled the forest scenes, evening light and sombre skies of Ruisdael’s picturesque landscapes; the freshness and spontaneity of Corot’s luminous impressionism; the cursory but reverential strokes, shapes and characters found in Ch’an Buddhist paintings by artists such as Liang K’ai and Ying Yu-Ch’ien; modern Conceptualism and Land Art - as well as his own recollections from sketches and landscape studies. The styles of modernism are employed as part of the grammar of available forms: “Style has become a voluntary option to be scavenged and recycled, to be quoted, paraphrased and parodied - to be used as a language.” 17 Images have been accessed randomly through photocopied distortions and other techniques intended to alter the found objects and extend their meaning:

I’ve been interested in finding modern equivalents for the spontaneous, revelational brushstrokes of Ch’an painting. In the photocopy pieces a single gesture deflects an image of a 17th century painting through a piece of dumb ­but sensitive - technology. This has a certain appeal. The naturalism of the picture collides with the gesture to emerge as a new narrative. In catalysing these existing structures, I feel that apart from creating my own work I’m freeing traditional landscape painting from the useless closed frame of familiarity. 18

The result resembles a fluid collage of cultural pluralism - a recognition of the interpenetration of past and present. Rankle understands that postmodernism does not exist in an historical vacuum, but involves a continual working and reworking of metaphoric fragments which can be woven together to form one distinct image:

In quoting from what might be termed the landscape vernacular, I hope to produce multi-layered works that deflect conventional interpretations. The associational aspect of landscape images themselves; the references to an historical conditioning through the art and text; the re-reading made possible through a use of contrary tactile and false colour techniques; all contribute to a disruption of habitual appropriations of landscape as concept and open other possibilities for a fresh, unconditioned response. 19

The vividness and conviction of his works are irrevocably tied up with his belief that art must rediscover an all-embracing participation with the world, a feeling for the supernatural presence in things and a state of consciousness which the jungian psychologist, Erich Neumann, called “participation mystique”. 20 The artist is required to transmute the empiricism of his senses into a vision of primal simplicity, resurrecting a magical universe in which man no longer feels separated from all that lives. Rankle’s paintings are a search for something irreducible in the landscape, a direct and empathetic response to the environment.

Henri Bergson wrote, it is only when “our ego lets itself live, when it refrains from separating its present state from its former states” that a true understanding of time (“pure duration”) can be reached. 21 Rankle’s interest in archetypal forms, the traditions of European landscape painting and Chineses philosophy and aesthetics has led him to an understanding that the experience of the sacred and mythical dimension in life exists upon a plane fundamentally different from that of historical time-lines. He sees his art as engaging in a creative dialogue between the past and the present, time being subjected to the continuous flow of his mental activity:

A feeling for an inner resonance, and what I would call duration in Nature, the ebb and flow of the dialogue, are implicit in my stance as an artist. 22

Space is full of significance for Rankle and the landscape, rather than comprising merely physical and geological features, provides a record of mythical history in which rocks, hills and trees could be experienced as sacred. The landscape is not used as a “motif’ in the Cezanne sense, yielding the basis of a composition. Instead, Rankle extracts energy from places and offers his sensory, cognitional and conceptual experiences back in a form which extends our consciousness of space and time within the context of the configuration of the landscape. His paintings express with remarkable intensity the immediacy of his experiences and perceptions so that the paint possesses not only colour and texture, but subtly varying density, almost taste and aroma.

The painting is finished when this activated field of interlocked images coalesces into a decisive feeling for the place and moment that originally inspired the beginning of the painting. Rankle’s works do not veil themselves with a rhythmic music of forms, but present a feeling that here you are witnessing a concatenation, a simultaneity, that the landscape is exposed to you all at once. All sensory, cognitional and conceptual experiences of place are enclosed into a single frame.

For all Society’s opposition to the natural environment, we and all our works are nature. It’s the rhythmic pulse of intrinsic energy that connects us to the landscape. From the breeze blowing on our faces to the electronic gale howling through the TV screen, whatever the mode, the dialogue exists. A great painting reveals itself in an almost interactive way. A sense of duration in viewing activates the dialogue of the art. The fulcrum is contemplation. 23

Anthony Wallersteiner 1998

1.             Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, Vintage Books, New York, 1967, p. 136
2.             Alan Rankle, Landscapes for the North, Riverfall Press, East Sussex, 1996 P. 31
3.             John Constable, quoted in Towards a New Landscape, Bernard Jacobson Ltd., London, 1993, p.15
4.             Quoted in Werner Hoffmann, Turner und die Landschaftsmalerei seiner Zeit, Munich, 1976, p.24
5.             Alan Rankle, op.cit., 1996, p.1 3
6.             Ibid., p.31
7.             Roger Woods, essay in Landscapes for the North, op.cit., p.7
8.             W. Jackson Rushing, quoted in Michael Tucker, Dreaming With Open Eyes, Aquarian/Thorsons, London, 1992, p.319.
9.             8. Willis, The Tao of Art: The inner meaning of Chinese Art and Philosopy, Century/Hutchinson, London, 1987
10.           Alan Rankle, op.cit., 1996, p.1 7
11.           Alan Rankle, unpublished interview, 1993
12.           Alan Rankle, op.cit., 1996, p.1 5
13.           Quoted in Werner Speiser, China, Spirit and Society, Methuen, London 1960, p.112
14.           Alan Rankle, Art Review, March 1996
15.           C.G. Jung, The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature, Ark Paperbacks/Routledge, London, 1988, pp 82-83
16.           ‘Joseph Beuys, Man is Sculpture’, essay in German Art Now, Art and Design, 1989.
17.           Kim Levin, “Farewell to Modernism” in Beyond Modernism, Harper and Row, 1988, p4
18.           Alan Rankle, op.cit., 1993, p.13
19.           Ibid., p.l3
20.           E. Neumann, Art and the Creative Unconscious, Harper and Row, New York, 1966
21.           Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, Macmillan and Co., London, 1922
22.           Alan Rankle, op.cit., 1996, p.1 5
23.           Alan Rankle, op.cit., 1996, p.17

 

Text © Anthony Wallersteiner / Riverfall Press

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