Be still my soul 2003

Don Rankin is a painter who seeks to ‘investigate the order and harmony existing between things and the spaces between things’.

In European art over the centuries the genre of Still Life has a long and noble tradition. A contemporary painter inherits from that tradition certain elements and preoccupations – the nature of representation, the contemplative quality of observation, objects as tokens unfamiliar in their familiarity – but the contemporary mind requires the slant of individuality, as well as the invocation of stillness and ‘the profundity of the everyday’.

In Don Rankin’s work a relatively small number of painterly icons – a sheep’s skull, a glass of water, flagon, flower, utensils – are reiterated, but in each case the observer’s eye is drawn to other elements in the painting. These primary icons are resonant things in themselves, no doubt of that; but it is their placement and their participation in the painter’s overall vision which build out beyond the concept of ‘object’ into a world of subtle and resonant associations.

One of the most striking paintings, in terms of direct image, is the composition in which a white rose with its long green stem is suspended upside down within a glass flagon. The image is playful yet poignant. The articulation of the image is glowing and precise, yet also disturbing. The reasons for this disturbance creep upon the viewer slowly. The concept in itself certainly demands attention, but the dark base inside the bottle contributes its own comment, which throws the white petals of the rose into almost painful contrast. And then at the foot of the painting it is evident that the flagon is resting on sheets of soft paper. The bench below is clearly visible. It is presented, so that no viewer can avoid its insistence upon the everyday fact of ‘bench’ which sustains the illusion – flower turning into symbol, glass becoming enclosure. Further, the tissue-paper motif is repeated and emphasized in the background wall, where the texture with its creases and ripples invokes, not stillness but an almost turbulent patterning, like waves or the troubled passage of twilight clouds. The painting is a reflection on the nature of representation. The experience of seeing brings the onlooker into a world of contrasts and somehow disequilibrating counterpoint.

In the painting of three yellow flowerheads sticking out of a shiny tin container, the artist’s play with pattern and perception is even more evident. The flowers immediately convey all the expected images of the timelessness of beauty and its ephemerality. The scatter of fallen petals on the bench below serves to emphasize that point. But in this work the background itself is very much an active part of the representation. Conspicuous sticky-tape affixes the sheets of clearly delineated paper to the wall (or what we must assume is a wall). There is no attempt to eliminate these elements; they are as insistent as the flowers themselves, or the almost ostentatiously polished fruit-tin that holds the flowers. Again, the bench supporting the composition, with all its wood-grain and even its supporting pins, insists on being included. It is against this very happenstance of positioning that the flowers must work whatever magic of assertion or association they may bring to the eye and mind of the observer. The result, interestingly, is a sense of the profundity of the ephemeral, rather than the careful manipulation of it.

There are some paintings which focus on the almost completely ignored elements of everyday living in an ordinary home. Light switches, door knobs, the edges of things – wall, panelling, the door itself – the artist demonstrates with his eye and his attention something of the great power even such small icons can invoke.
I am reminded of the empty interiors, all shadow and corners, of the early Twentieth century Danish artist, Vilhelm Hammerskoi. Don Rankin applies a skill and a visual element all his own, and one which might be seen to have founded its concern with placement and surprise from someone like Morandi; but like Hammerskoi, Rankin’s vision of the unnoticed and the neglected points of those spaces we live in brings us up, suddenly, with recognitions greater than those ostensibly depicted. Absence is as powerful as presence in the work of both artists.

These paintings haunt with their stillness and subtle turbulence. As with all great still life paintings, there is a celebrative element which immediately holds the viewer. There is also a rigour and a resonance and it is the tension generated between these which makes these paintings continue to surprise, and to satisfy.

Thomas Shapcott
Professor of Creative Writing, University of Adelaide.

This Page Updated: 2 November 2006