David Rankin
The Prophesy of Dry Bones
Robert Steele Gallery through May 30

by Margaret Sheffield

David Rankin's new paintings are remarkable in this grimly secular city for evoking with equal conviction the unseen and the seen, the soul and the senses. This kind of balanced sensibility, T.S. Eliot told us, would cease to exist after the death of John Donne; art would thereafter be the "product of a dissociated sensibility." David Rankin proves him wrong. These beautiful paintings combine spirit, blood, memory, and imagination. They are outstanding for their quality of light and painterly bravura.

Rankin's signature style is an innovative synthesis of the Western tradition, Chinese landscape painting, and the calligraphic aboriginal art of the British-born artist's adopted country, Australia. Rankin is disarmingly modest about his originality and achievements. "As a young man in the Australian outback everything was equally relevant or irrelevant. No one had ever heard of Kenneth Noland or Frank Stella. I was free to be influenced by Rembrandt, Paul Klee, Mark Tobey, and to make scratchy calligraphic works on wood."

The painter has always been after a certain quality of light, one that he eloquently describes as "the weight of light one feels in Rembrandt." Rankin exploits the spiritual, cultural and painterly sources in his background to create works of awesome beauty; this series is entitled The Prophecy of Dry Bones.

While these works, some monumental, some intimate were painted on a hilltop, literally on the hilly earth around St. Miguel de Allende, Mexico, they in fact go back in spiritual mood and theme to Rankin's 1991 Golgotha paintings which followed a trip to Jerusalem. There Rankin had found that for the Jews Golgotha, the hill outside Jerusalem, is the place where the Messiah's blood dropping on the ground will summon the bones of the dead to arise. Rankin made the images in the new Prophecy paintings ambiguous and non-specific: freely brushed horizontal black shapes read simultaneously as waves, terraces in a landscape like the Judean hills, or a continuum of irregular bone shapes. These rhythmic black bands also read as letters, as calligraphic marks in monumental scrolls, or, in smaller works, pages in a spiritual book.

The force of these paintings derives equally from their spiritual conviction and the heat and energy of the palette and the texture; reflecting the process of making them, and linking them to the stony mountain and fiery earth of the Mexican landscape (which, ironically, is very similar to that of the Judean hills.)

Rankin's virtuoso range of painterly gifts, from fragile sponged-in ochres, cobalt greens, reds, tans, and his astonishing graphic vocabulary, combine to create a quietly explosive ground, an intricate web of pigment and charcoal.

The painter brilliantly orchestrates this ground plane in dramatic counterpoint to the large-scale black "bone" or letter imagery. Rankin then creates a very subtle third "plane" which is not really a plane, but, in the artist's words, an "elision of perception," eliding or fusing the expressionist ground plane to the second plane of black calligraphic bone-marks. This third dimension, in the words of curator Michael Walls, "weeps" on a diagonal from top to bottom, for example, in Prophecy, a terra- cotta mass of color moves across, uniting different parts of the canvas.

These paintings were in Rankin's consciousness for a long time but painted in a way the artist calls Zen "I had thought about them for five years, but painted them in Mexico in about five weeks."

The two monumental paintings at the west end of the gallery have active expressionist backgrounds which are metaphors for landscape, with a luxuriant explosion of reds, ochres, and terra- cottas evoking unbounded potentiality. A passionate energy of gestation and growth emerges through the layers of pigment

In three other works, Rankin's circular irregularly-spaced dots represent the animating Chi or life force of Chinese philosophy and landscape painting. Rankin has used these marks, as an early drawing in this exhibition shows, in exquisite, rhythmically spaced charcoal drawings.

The theme of Rankin's paintings is human destiny and spiritual awakening, dramatized in symbolic landscapes that are dry yet germinating. Rankin's bone-like imagery was partly inspired by a passage in Ezekial where the Lord calls on him to pray over the bones, so that they will hear the Lord's words, and thereafter rise up and follow the Lord to the land of Israel.

Rankin's superb line, along with his painterly and graphic touch communicate a life-giving charge from one passage to another, which vitalizes each work with strong rhythmic energy. While he adds layer after layer of paint and line to each work to increase its articulation and individuality, he does not allow this to lessen the light-emanating energy.

As opposed to what Henry Geldzahler once described as the "instant take" he demanded of a painting, Rankin's paintings read like archeological sites, forever offering up more and more to the viewer. Paul Tillich wrote in Art, Creativity, and the Sacred that genuine symbolic power in a work of art opens up its own depths, and the depths of reality as such. Rankin's poetic and philosophical rarity is in doing this.

Copyright ©1997 Margaret Sheffield & REVIEW All Rights Reserved