Two years ago, Alan Rankle showed a body of work at Bermondsey Project Space titled Pastoral Collateral. In his latest presentation in the gallery, this time titled Mothland, the work on show comprises recent paintings, works on paper and videos, all of which indicate that Rankle continues to develop the primary themes for which he has become widely known; namely those works relating to the Romantic tradition in landscape art and what the artist describes as the ‘increasingly fragmented [and] clearly insanely broken relationship of our global societies to the natural environment’. Given the fact that, at the time of writing, the current issue of Art North magazine concerns a re-evaluation of the Sublime in contemporary art, it is understandably a ‘no brainer’ that I should attend to Rankle’s output and give it some brief analysis.
Curated by Claudia De Grandi with whom Rankle regularly collaborates, in Mothland three specific series are brought together in reference to each other – they being Rankle’s prior Pastoral Collateral series in which he reflected on his own personal backstory in the North of England, his Castle Paintings, created initially for Capture the Castle – a ‘historical survey exhibition where he montaged images of bombed out ruins in Syria to provide the backdrop to elegantly depicted, picturesque views of English castles’ – and his Turner in Hastings works that comprise an ongoing visual essay which considers artists such as Turner, Whistler, De Wint and other renowned watercolourists who stayed and worked around Rankle’s adopted home of St. Leonards on Sea.
In the latter of these series – Turner in Hastings – one immediately runs into the compositional conventions that were not just a commonplace for Turner and his contemporaries, but continued for some time after, eventually reaching a point of reconciliation between the archaic and the modern in William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858 (1860) – a work (see below) that was once described by the critic Peter Fuller as showing “women and children hunting for fossils (evidence against the idea that nature was [God’s] divine handiwork) on a bleak, grey, godless shore.” Two years earlier, Fuller had written of the Dyce’s Pegwell Bay that, the artist was not asking us to believe that those depicted in the painting ‘are tracing the finger marks of God’, for each seems insulated within her own space: ‘None is looking at another. Over the heads of all of them passes a comet, symbol of impending doom and disaster.’ Well, that was then.
In Rankle’s Turner in Hastings I of 2017 (above), disaster it appears has now struck. Although conforming to the compositional conventions of the late-18th century, the shoreline in Turner in Hastings I is consumed by a murky yellow-orange over a sickly green underpainting. The sea has risen, too, and although the blue sky at top may hold true in terms of Rankle’s nod to masters of a different day, the yellow-orange seepage referred to appears about to engulf all that as well. If Dyce’s picture is of a Godless and uncertain world (at least in terms of faith in that world’s architect or maker), there are hints in Rankle’s Turner in Hastings series that it is we who are now the architects of its destruction – something that he consistently explores in several of the works on show.
Indeed, as the artist has said of his practice in this regard, ‘The flurry of Romanticism wherein we appreciated the sublime divinity of Nature remains as a shadow, hanging across the changing skies of these paintings like the grin of the Cheshire Cat – a fleeting moment destined to be as forgotten as our species itself’.
First comes blind faith, then human enquiry but, as finite as the world itself, human and planetary destruction self-wrought and as unthinking as is our want and greed seems to follow. Do we see in Rankle’s Turner in Hastings series the endgame of civilisation as we know it, just as we see in Dyce’s Pegwell Bay the endgame of not just the Pre-Raphaelite challenge but also the collapse of faith in a maker? I think so. Come the point of Rankle’s Turner in Hastings II, the lurid slick of yellow that I have referred to above has already been transposed to a sun-setting sky, and in the foreground a slick of black oil is almost one with the cliff face itself.
Turning to Rankle’s Castle Paintings, created initially for Capture the Castle, exhibited in Southampton in 2017, the artist has said that:
‘…these paintings are part of an ongoing series of works about castles and their iconic relevance to modern times. […] I first addressed this theme working in a studio at St Quentin la Tour, a twelfth century maison forte in the region of the Cathars in South West France in 1986. These recent subjects, Bodiam and Lindisfarne, were, like many castles, built to dominate what are stunningly beautiful landscapes, which to contemporary observers provide a reassuringly picturesque context to the barbarism enacted within and without their walls.’
The wooded glades of mature broadleaf trees in some of Rankle’s castle paintings are here reminiscent of so many works by Claude Lorrain (1600 – 1682) and his Dutch contemporary Salomon van Ruysdael (c.1602 - 1670), if not Fragonard (1780 – 1850), too. The detail here, which might be taken for a straight ‘lift’ from their works is, however, overpainted with the smeared colours already encountered in the Hastings series, the only difference being that in Rankle’s castle paintings the vegetation is backgrounded by the architectonic blocking in of castle forms as seen through a clearing; stark, pitch black, and against a deep orange sky in the case of Untitled Painting XXVI (Bodiam). The sky here is as bright as the Madeley Wood Furnaces painted by Philip James de Loutherbourg in the background of his Coalbrookdale by Night (1801 – see below) and should not (perhaps cannot) be taken for any natural sunset. Something more sinister is afoot here, as if the castle is ablaze.
Interesting at this point, perhaps, is that with regard to Rankle’s previous Pastoral Collateral series, the artist describes that body of work as his coming to terms with his own roots, ‘growing up in the Northern landscape amid the detritus of the Industrial Revolution’, whereas in his Castle series he has transposed the extremes of the ‘natural’ and ‘quasi-industrial’ as if the industrial revolution has collided with the agrarian revolution that facilitated it, in terms of manpower at least.
Were the ‘new castles’ of the industrial revolution not the heart of empires that arose in the form of the mill towns of Northern England anyway? Were they not what Blake referred to as our Dark Satanic Mills, a phrase that encompassed the very destruction of nature and authentic human relationships? As the literature accompanying Rankle’s current exhibition states (and as mentioned above, remember) what he develops here relates to the idealised tradition of sublime romantic landscape art and our increasingly fragmented and clearly insanely broken relationship with the natural environment.
In works such as It's Not Dark Yet III (2017) it is indeed clearly not quite dark yet, but it may as well be! ‘Picturesque’ may be the vegetation, but the colour harmonies and the colours themselves are here breaking down. A deathly, pallid grey makes itself known both in the sky within the picture as well as on the picture plane too – in the case of the latter a ‘stain on nature’ as it were.
• • •
In Britain, the words ‘picturesque’ and the ‘sublime’ have often mistakenly been used interchangeably, with William Gilpin being viewed as the father of the picturesque (according to his 18th century formulation of ideas concerning that topic), and Edmund Burke being considered in some way father of the sublime. And yet, when conflated, what we arrive at are mere satires such as Thomas Love Peacock’s novel titled Crotchet Castle of 1831. Indeed, early analyses of the Sublime as it was experienced in both art and life, had originally followed the precepts laid down by Burke and others whose writings were easy meat for the satirists of their times.
In Crotchet Castle, for example, Peacock inserts the fictional character of Miss Susannah Touchandgo; a young woman who is described as a lady in search of the awe-inspiring sublime of the natural world to be found in ‘fissures in rock’ and ‘gnarled and twisted oaks’ from which she would sit and stare into the abyss; a darksome mass that she would lean into, in fact, ‘her heart beating audibly.’ This ‘perception of the sublime,’ wrote Peacock satirically, ‘was probably heightened by an intermingled sense of danger and that indifference to life which early disappointment forces upon sensitive minds.’ So much for the sublime as plaything. In a 21st century world that is facing down climate catastrophe, there is no longer room for satire and the joke quickly thins until it is just not funny any more, for that which is most ‘awe-inspiring’ now is the very fear of extinction itself.
Little wonder, then, that Rankle turns to artists such as Goya in his pictorial rendering of what likely awaits us. I may have this wrong but in Fairlight from the Watermeadows IV (Goya), (2018) Rankle assembles a pastoral scene again, for sure, but if ever there were such a thing in genre painting as a ‘darksome idyll’ then Fairlight from the Watermeadows IV (Goya) would qualify for inclusion. Here the tree resembles more a gallows pole than anything else. The central trunk that rises from behind a crimson smear or stain goes nowhere, strange fruit indeed hangs from its single branch, too. Unlike Goya’s cartoons such as Boys Climbing a Tree (1791-92) in the Prado Museum (a painting that epitomises pastoral pleasantries, and was made in preparation for one of the tapestries in King Charles IV's office at Monasterio del Escorial), Rankle’s Fairlight from the Watermeadows IV appears to have more in common with Goya’s Los Desastres de la Guerra, a series of prints depicting 17th century war crimes and torture, or Jake and Dinos Chapman’s glitter painted transcription of the same, titled The Disasters of Yoga (2017).
Make no mistake, though, Rankle is no ‘showman of shock’; these are considered works that he exhibits in Mothland, and there should be no misunderstanding about the fact that he calls upon a careful and studious consideration of European landscape painting to develop his darksome vistas. Cynics might call him out for giving Claude Lorain ‘a Gerhard Richter makeover’, but this would be foolish. There is a lot more going on here than just a paltry pastiche of past masters, updated for our age.
As the artist himself has said: ‘Since I’m interested in landscape painting the work begins with walking and catching ideas. I like to talk with writers and some artists I’m close to about the way painting can be a catalyst for noticing symmetries and relationships between all kinds of phenomena. As Shih Tao put it: “in terms of penetration and development, painting is the greatest guiding form in the world”.’ On being asked of his process in making these works, Rankle offers some insight with the following text (extracts from a forthcoming book about a project to make eight paintings for a villa in Venice) also:
‘The works of painters of the Venetian School along with the paintings of other notable 17th century artists have been of great interest to me since my student days. In the early 1970’s studying at Goldsmiths’ College, in what was to become a conceptual forum of contemporary art, I nonetheless found myself increasingly drawn to the theatrical virtuosity and sheer articulateness of artists like Titian, Ruisdael, Salvatore Rosa and Claude Lorrain. It seemed to me these painters, in making an astounding leap in terms of painterly methods and techniques, had also uncovered a way to reconcile the need for art to retain a sense of the urgent visceral immediacy within the instinctive rapport we have with nature. They opened the doorway for the development of painting as an art in Modern Times.’
The ‘virtuosity’ that Rankle refers to, he says, can be attributed to the development of oil painting with the the Venetian school, developed through many artists who inspired him, (e.g. ‘where the modern use of oil painting methods, wet into wet, glazing and scumbling, allows a free spontaneously evolving way of creating the work. Related to these historical techniques I decided to explore other ideas about the nature of painting. The illusions of ‘pentimenti’ which I used on the layered paintings at La Villa – often in conjunction with photo-montaged images – are coming from observations on the way some Renaissance and Baroque paintings become more transparent with age to reveal the under-painting and also any changes and alterations the artist made on the surface of the canvas.’)
Rankle’s paintings being exhibited currently, he therefore claims, may be read as an evolving presence: ‘Significantly sometimes a figure previously painted out emerges from the shadows years later; often a portrait can be discerned to have several expressions.’ The result? An intrigue with regard technique that the artist deploys frequently in his work. ‘It’s potentially a metaphor for the effects of time in landscapes and for allowing the mystery of places and past events to be alluded to and of course it evokes such theatrical devices as sub-plots, undercurrents, hidden dealings and the implied ability to ‘re-write’ history as so many powers and shady characters have tried to do.’ In fact, one sees what Rankle refers to at its clearest in works such as Edge of Arcadia, 2018, (above).
Compositionally the right hand side of Edge of Arcadia carries a fleeting and somewhat superficial resemblance to Constable’s The Lock of 1824, but the black smear to the left hangs as heavy as the tricolore in Delacroix's La Liberté guidant le peuple (Liberty Leading the People) of 1830. If traces are what interests Rankle then perhaps my own rather superficial observations are relevant, too. Or not, as the case may be. To force the juxtaposition would be wrong, but it merits a passing consideration, I think. The black smear to the upper left of Rankle’s Edge of Arcadia may merely be a compositional device, but it carries a weight and a gravitas that draws our attention. If the artist has an interest in theatrical devices, hidden dealings, and an ability to ‘re-write’ history as so many powers and shady characters have tried to do, then the works that I refer to from the first decades of the 1800s are surely relevant, as they both have come to represent a shift towards Romanticism from Classicism.
But here’s the rub… Is Rankle a Romanticist or a Classicist in both outlook and interest? I would argue he is both. Though meant for artists such as Samuel Palmer, the art historian Kenneth Clark invented the term Micropolitan Art as a descriptor for a much wider style of painting – by which he meant a ‘pure and self sufficient art’ that is neither Provincial nor Metropolitan, rather in some ways both. In formulating his view of what Micropolitan actually was, Clark claimed that ‘truth to nature and individual judgement’ are the recurrent catchwords of the provincial ‘in its struggle to free itself from the dominating style’, while ‘metropolitan art, in its struggle for formal perfection, prefers to repeat the same subject, and even the same pattern, again and again.’
These two brought together then, Micropolitan art resembles very closely the informed pastoral provincialism of Rankle’s painting, yet the recurring motifs are what often catch one’s eye the most and are a reference to modernist repetition perhaps. They frequently reappear as the common tropes of landscape painting from past centuries and by those artists Rankle cites as being of primary interest to him. Take for example variations of the same stumps and broken boughs (below) that comprise the arboreal detail of several paintings in this exhibition. They appear frequently, and are there for a reason – tropes as said, but there as a nod to where the picturesque and the sublime in art might meet too, maybe.
For a group exhibition Axis: London Milano for Fabbrica del Vapore in Milan that Rankle co-curated with Claudia De Grandi (an exhibition that included work by Catherine Balet, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tim Craven, Oska Lappin, Stephen Newton, Matthew Radford, Kirsten Reynolds, Cat Roissetter, and Charlotte Snook, among others) Rankle included his own painting, Untitled Painting XIII (Herne) as his contribution to the show. As he said of that work, ‘in what at first sight appears to be a straightforward painting of a wild northern landscape reveals on closer inspection an image of a startled stag, running scared from an unknown terror and floundering into a visibly polluted stream.’ However one situates Rankle as an artist, stylistically or conceptually, in that one statement his underlying interests are made patently clear, and they persist in Mothland at Bermondsey Project Space.
In closing perhaps it is apt to remain mindful of Alan Rankle’s last outing at Bermondsey Project Space with Pastoral Collateral. For that show he laid the ground for what was to come in an interview with critic Anna McNay:
“I wanted to relate ideas about historical, idealised, pastoral landscape in art to the grim reality of the environmental crisis that we are in, which isn’t just an environmental crisis anymore, it’s a totally impregnated social and political crisis heading towards disaster. Considering the historical origins of the genre in relation to my own paintings, I wanted to convey the irony implicit in how the 19th century Romantic movement, with its emphasis on the idyllic natural world of an imaginary past, was sponsored by people who, having made gigantic fortunes out of the Industrial Revolution by building their empires on the slave trade and the criminal use of the Enclosures Acts (forcing the poor from their traditional peasant homes to work in their factories and mills) also laid the foundations of environmental pollution on a catastrophic scale. Turner and other artists were commissioned by the barons of the Industrial Revolution to take the Grand Tour and pick up ideas from artists such as Claude Lorrain, Titian, Dughet and Poussin, who were themselves employed to evoke the fantasy of a golden age, a sort of Narnia in Ancient Greece and Rome, where people talked to animals and fucked gods.”
In the post-industrial world of corporate capitalism and neoliberal excess, of course the Gods we now fuck just fuck us back, but harder. The landscape that we collectively populate is polluted by our own hand in the vain attempt to still consume the fruits of our own labour (which we buy back on credit and always at a higher price), later divesting ourselves of those ‘fruits’ as per the ever-faster turnaround of both fad and fashion, increasingly thrown breadcrumb-like at our feet. Meanwhile, on the high ground and moors of North Yorkshire and the Pennines, the soil is still stained black with soot to a depth of 60cm, a reminder of the now-closed mills of the 19th century and the black snow that they dumped on the landscape. Only cotton grass and bilberry grows where once grew over thirty species of flora in Turner’s time. If this is the dystopian reality in which we are living, Rankle captures it well with his lurid stains and vivid colours, all obscuring what was once the Eden (or Arcadia) that we will never know. Et in Arcadia ego? – "Even in Arcadia, there am I." The reference is to death but Arcadia may have once symbolised the pure, rural, idyllic life, far from the city. There’ll be no going back, of course. Live we must with our delusions and dreams, meanwhile contenting ourselves with the twisted beauty of Rankle’s work, and those other artists (becoming rarer in our time) who can still hold a mirror up so that we can at least get a glimpse of the folly of our ways.
Alan Rankle | Mothland
Painting and Editions
Curated by Claudia De Grandi
Until 21 September 2019
Bermondsey Project Space