The relationship between things 2005

My primary concern as an artist is aesthetic. This is not to deny that other readings of my work are intended or possible, but any discernible subtext is meant to be subsumed in the enjoyment of simply looking carefully and being rewarded and uplifted by the contemplation of an individual painting. Although the paintings are representational, the formal harmony which I strive for results in a strong underlying abstract aspect to the paintings which is enhanced by the geometric rigour which goes into their conception and the shallow space depicted. Art of the past plays a large role in influencing what I do. Renewing of tradition is a valid (necessary?) option for a contemporary artist, because some form of transformation takes place in any new interpretation.

Video and photography, like painting, can convey powerful and lasting images, and the best work in these areas acknowledges artistic tradition (for example, Bill Viola and Bill Henson). However, unlike the anonymous, homogenous surface of a photograph or a video screen, the essence of the visual experience of looking at a painting lies with the materiality of the paint, or what the French would call ’facture’. Seeing and looking are subjective sensations, and it is in finding material equivalents for those sensations that the magic of oil paint comes into play (for example, in the way a stroke of paint can morph into the shine on a pear). The innumerable decisions about colour, tone and texture have an inescapable character peculiar to the individual artist, simply because a painting is a handmade object.

Six of the eight canvases which comprise the single work titled Somme veterans depict Australian survivors of World War 1, not in a nostalgic way as youthful soldiers but as veterans who each lived to be over one hundred years of age. On the battle-ravaged fields of the Somme, the red poppy would dutifully rise as a paean to life. Flowers can carry a great deal of symbolic baggage: peace, nationalism, bereavement, and beauty. The spaces between the paintings form a set of white crosses which reinforces the motif picked up in the eighth canvas. This suite of paintings contains oblique references to the work of artists Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Colin McCahon.

The three paintings under the generic title of Freudian still life are a little tongue-in-cheek. Each one contains a depiction of a reproduced image of an etching of a naked woman by Lucian Freud, grandson of the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, whose theories are to some extent now discredited. Symbolic weight could be given to the other objects depicted in the paintings – each viewer can bring their own interpretations to bear upon the subject matter, but a sense of humour will help.

Pears feature frequently in the still life paintings because they are one of the most visually interesting of fruits, varying tremendously in shape and colour, both of which change as they decay (the bruise marks and lacerations becoming increasingly obvious). The Chinese ceramics, with their semi-formal geometric patterns, along with the silver objects provide a textural foil for the fruit or crumpled paper bags.

The drawing process is made transparent in Double portrait of Michael Kluvanek with the right panel fully painted and the left panel remaining at the drawing stage, although in this case, the drawing has been more fully developed than I would normally require. In other paintings the scaling-up of the image is made explicit, with measuring marks from the drawing stage painted in.

The flower paintings simply represent a study of what is arguably nature’s finest small-scale appeal to our ideal of beauty, although there are other painterly constructs to look for. For example, in Freesias #2, the scattered detritus of masking tape echoes the sequential explosion of blooms along the stem of the flower.

The idea for The Little Dancer came from Edgar Degas’ small bronze sculpture of the same name. In this painting I have tried to capture a characteristic type of young girl interested in ballet, exuding a certain grace and unselfconscious confidence. To reinforce to the viewer that this is an artifice (an illusionistic painting set up in the studio), a bottle of painting medium is depicted in the foreground while on the wall behind the dancer is an empty canvas and a glimpse of two favourite postcards (works by Morandi and Zurbaran).

For my still life paintings, I set up an arrangement of objects in the studio. This process generally undergoes numerous phases, beginning with the selection of a set of objects and then experimenting with permutations of those objects, seeking that special relationship between things (and always keeping in mind that empty space is itself an element of composition). Towards the end of the process I am usually almost imperceptibly shifting an object in order to emphasise its relationship to a nearby object, maybe in the shadow it casts, the reflected light it picks up or the way its shape echoes or counteracts the shape of an adjacent object. A drawing is then made directly onto the canvas and then the painting process begins. Each painting effectively erases or conceals a drawing. Since this is the only drawing I do, it represents a loss in a certain sense, although because the drawing establishes the composition and structure of the finished painting, it never really disappears.

Don Rankin
June 2005

This Page Updated: 2 November 2006