Three themes, or aims reports Charles Nodrum of the Charles Nodrum Gallery Melbourne, come through in the work of artist David Rankin: to achieve a clear sense of “our Western culture … an understanding of our Asian cultural context … and a feeling for an Aboriginal sense of place …” They emerged into his awareness as a 20 year old and have remained with him ever since.
“All-over” painting – works with no predominant form or motif – emerged in Australia in the 1960s. The phenomenon was not new; Pollock’s drips had become world famous and Styll’s swathes were much admired by fellow artists; behind them stood JMW Turner’s barely discernible landscapes wreathed in sunlit mists.
In Melbourne Fred Williams’ Sherbrooke and Barmah Forest series reduced the surface to an overall fawn, punctuated by occasional verticals, and his later Australian Landscapes in the late 60s were reduced to a series of dots on a grey ground.
In Majorca, Frank Hodgkinson picked up the Spanish tradition and produced a suite of heavily textured black monochromes.
Other winds were blowing: Op Art’s frenzied repetitions had the effect of stunning the eye and bringing the interpretive mind to a temporary halt; and at the other end of the visual spectrum, Minimalism was systematically draining subject matter to a point of virtual extinction.
Robert Hunter’s off-white squares were the most rigorous, and Dale Hickey’s fence and weatherboard paintings were the most ambiguous (they could be read as pure abstractions or as realist depictions of architectural features).
Peter Booth’s black paintings were swiftly dubbed “doorways”, and David Aspden and Robert Jacks both produced similarly structured works in higher keys – as did Gunther Christmann, though in his case the centre was animated by intense dots.
John Peart had also experimented with dots in 1969 and Dick Watkins produced an equally persuasive body of drip and stain works in the early 1970s. To these artists, and to this aesthetic, we can add David Rankin.
In the 1960s, students who undertook teacher training were bonded for two years after graduation and in Rankin’s case that meant Bourke, where he taught primary school from 1966-7. It was here that the landscape element took root in his painting, coming to fruition in Sydney over the following two years. With no formal studies, he plunged straight in and in 1968 held his first solo show at Watters Gallery.
The titles, Tarcoon, Gundabooka, etc are regional place names which specifically, but not rigidly, evoke the nature of the land. Gary Catalano particularly noted
… a handful of paintings which generally carried the word ‘grass’ in their titles [where] Rankin explored the pictorial possibilities of long, slender and feathery strands. At times he would stack them into dense, barrier-like thickets and at other times sprinkle them on the surface in more spare and open arrangements [which] distinguished them from anything else being shown at the time.
As the intensity of the circles increased, the results soon start to trigger that momentary other-worldliness that the optical artists were generating. Neither he, nor anyone else except for the Aboriginal artists who were not yet practising in public, was aware of the indigenous art that would sweep across Australia in the final quarter of the century, so it remains something of a mystery (for me, at any rate) as to how certain white artists were making work that bears a fairly clear surface resemblance to some of the ancient art of the central desert. The implication (tempting but problematic) is that the land itself seemed to require a “something” in the way of a particular vocabulary to best express its nature
In Sydney in the 1970s further evolutions occur. The written word had always played a role (both he and, to a greater extent, his wife, Jennifer, were publishing poetry at the time) and he was absorbing the art of the Far East. Elliptical forms (which Rankin feels hark back to the boards he rode as a teenage surfie) gathered colour and the overlapping swathes were, in part, inspired by the layering in Korean ceramics.
The small ones are alive with energy and movement, whilst the long ones have a quite different mood emanating a restfulness which achieves its most definite expression in works reduced to a series of verticals, rather than the diagonals in this exhibition. A partial reversion to the earthy palette occurred with the Talavera Road paintings (named after the Macquarie University studio where he had a residency) where the roundels are replaced by wristy calligraphic strokes clearly reminiscent of oriental text
It is at this point that this exhibition concludes. Landscape remained central to the work in the 1980s. When offered a major UNESCO commission to paint a national treasure, Rankin chose Lake Mungo – as a celebration of its ancient indigenous history. However, as noted, this exhibition is held in conjunction with a suite of recent works showing at Mossgreen which re-connect with those issues in the evocation of place which has been in his mind since his first experience of the land around Bourke – in Tarcoon, Brewarrina, Louth and Gundabooka.