Whitehot Magazine

David Rankin: Earth and Light at Elizabeth Moss Galleries

David Rankin, Wu Jia Po, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 64 x 144 in.

David Rankin: Earth and Light

Elizabeth Moss Galleries

July 7 through August 26, 2023 

By STEPHEN WOZNIAK, July 2023 

“So, I take this word ‘reconciliation’ and I use it to reconcile people back to Mother Earth, so they can walk this land together and heal one another because she’s the one that gives birth to everything we see around us, everything we need to survive.” 

– Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Australian Aboriginal elder

“A monk sips morning tea
it's quiet
the chrysanthemum's flowering.”

  Matsuo Basho, A Monk Sips Morning Tea 

I love the poignant, serene imagery conjured up in the Basho poem. The monk enjoys a quiet, private moment while drinking his tea, which helps form, in the wise words of spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, a meditative “inner space consciousness” that allows him to appreciate creation, beauty and life itself – reiterated and wrapped up in the discrete arrangement of a simple flower. It’s magical and profound in countless ways. It’s what I hope we acquire from great art experiences and, I believe, we get from the work of David Rankin, which makes sense, since his nature-based paintings, in some ways, often engage that consciousness in viewers.

Rankin is a lot like painter Piet Mondrian. The works of each are often about relationships above all perceivable forms, however reduced, patterned or mingled upon a canvas. Mondrian strove for “pure relations” in art that attained the universal and, perhaps, even revealed unassailable absolutes, those disguised in the subjects of Impressionist, Cubist – and even his own – quasi-representational painting just prior to his celebrated primary color geometric grid work in the early 1920s through 1940s. Rankin, less a precision purist than a hands-on, heart-open pragmatist, came at it a little differently. His formative years in the Australian desert and bush country of Queensland add a dimension to his life experience that sets the artist closer to the earthen Aboriginal people he lived among and grew to admire than to abstract rules and fast forms of European modern high art, however noble they seemed. 

David Rankin, Hakone, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 71 x 60 in.

The son of an illiterate boot maker and teen mother, Rankin moved as a toddler from England to the dusty, sun-drenched sticks of New South Wales after World War Two. He was later encouraged by high school teachers to both explore his natural drawing talent and his keen interests in nearby Southeast Asian religions. He soon discovered the touching and spare haiku words of revered poets like Basho and billowing, inky, Japanese landscape scroll works that sharpened his unique point of view as an artist of this world. In his early twenties, Rankin began to exhibit his work and by the middle 1970s, created some of what would become the body of paintings now on view through August 26 in Elizabeth Moss Galleries as David Rankin: Earth and Light. 

After knee-deep reading of Buddhist tomes and experiencing a soul-altering, starlight phenomenon, Rankin began to see nature – in this case, the cosmos – as “continuous, seamless, interrelated and interconnected.” Nature is never something that exerts a force upon us, he discovered. Instead, it lies within us and extends beyond us. It is surely something we are. His work of this period, in turn, reflected a lifelong insider reverence for the natural world.  

One remarkable piece in this show is Hakone, acrylic on canvas, from 1973. It is a spirited collection of brushy translucent ellipses painted in the largely primary color palette of Mondrian but, here, oh-so chalky, every loose unit colliding ever-so-much against, over, under and around each other off the grid – like single-cell organisms transported from cool coastal tide pool waters into the dance of the hot desert sands. The title refers to the small town of the same name that offers visitors the proudest view of the nearby, mythic, life-affirming Mt. Fuji. I can imagine Rankin, in his youthful autumnal season travels, sitting beneath a brilliant rainbow canopy of beech tree leaves and simply unable to resist committing them to paint. I’m certainly glad that he did. 

Another painting that drew my attention among the fourteen on view in this exhibition is Koan Cloud, acrylic on canvas, also from 1973. Featuring barely overlapping, vertically dominant swaths of sea greens and obscured cerulean blue, the painting is flanked with similar forms in the terra firma rust red and creamed coffee classic colors of the outback landscape. It’s hard not to anthropomorphize these deep wash pods as bodies more than the clouds alluded to in the title. As such, they do seem to teach us something by way of their easy, buoyant relations, like animals in the wild we assume would prey upon one another that instead casually drink from the same oases and coexist slowly in peace.  

David Rankin, Koan Cloud, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 32.5 x 22.5 in.

Other Rankin works make close relations to the early, near-representational, pre-drip landscape paintings of American AbEx artist Jackson Pollock and the pocked, tall, patterned, 1940s paintings of Ad Reinhardt, such as Brown and Blue Landscape, from 1976, Shantu Bay, from 1978, and Scrub Drawing, from 1978. In these Rankin pieces, you can see not only the almost prehistoric Indigenous wall scratches found in Maliwawa cave and rock art that he may have encountered but also, as he said, “the markings and colors that the dry scrub made, the burnt stumps, the dry creek beds, the animal trails, the snakes and lizards and the birds. These came together to make images that I could use to express my sense of awe at life and reverence of the vitality of these things.”  

His fluid acrylic wash application and choice of bare canvas ground is interesting. It came right after the color field painters and geometry-heavy minimalists dominated the commercial fine art worlds in New York and Europe during the 1960s. To me, it’s clear he yearned for the ephemeral, yet humanizing touch of the prior, and a loose-ordered latticework of the latter, akin to Larry Poons or perhaps even Eva Hesse of that same time period. Rankin made additional marks, clawed his way around the canvas, penciled in child-like scrawl, sprayed some haze and even left a few drip bubbles along the way, accomplishing something different from all of them. 

Our recognition of patterns in nature points to our understanding and appreciation of their kindred and even conflicted relationships, their power as a group and their diversity of inspiring differences. In this collection, Earth and Light, Rankin, of course, sees this, too, and celebrates it. Whether he does so in his scroll-format, landscape-like paintings or his bolder, lyrical, soft-petal pictures, he stays in touch with the rhythm and rumble of the languid desert sands and flaming volcanic ground under our feet, as well as the bright light shafts that shine from each of the whimsical entities that populate his art. 

After seeing this show in person and speaking with him over the telephone, it’s clear that Rankin – who has experienced a certain share of personal loss and recovery – is a gentle, generous and sympathetic soul who, in many ways, helps to reconcile viewers with Mother Nature through his dreamy, poetic and remarkable works. His art puts viewers in touch with the nature that they are already inherently a part of, whether they know it or not. It’s like what American painter Larry Poons once said, “There’s something always instinctively visually right about nature. There’s no difference, to my eye, between looking at a great painting and looking at nature.” And once we see, instead of merely look, that’s when we gain reclamation in this life. WM

Stephen Wozniak

Stephen Wozniak is a visual artist, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in the Bradbury Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Leo Castelli Gallery, and Lincoln Center. He has performed principal roles on Star Trek: EnterpriseNCIS: Los Angeles, and the double Emmy Award-nominated Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code. He co-hosted the performing arts series Center Stage on KXLU radio in Los Angeles and guest hosts Art World: The Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art podcast in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more, go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart and @thestephenwozniak.

view all articles from this author