David Rankin Work: 1967-2004
After three years of development and preparation, the Tweed River Art Gallery has launched a major survey of the work of David Rankin curated by Dore Ashton, the internationally acclaimed American art critic, teacher and writer.


Black Prophecy Diptych 1998
acrylic on linen 162 x 238cm

A number of drawings are included in the exhibition, which give us a good insight into the angst and nervous tension arising from his contemplations. We can see him struggling to find the right sensation of colour and layout to express an emotion; and in some cases, as with artists like Robert Motherwell, sometimes these drawings say more than the larger works.

The great writer Primo Levi (1919-87), who in his book The Drowned and the Saved, expressed the hell that was the Nazi death camps, seems to be the inspiration for some of David Rankin’s more moving works, where he uses striking images that imply subjugation, hopelessness and loss. Although Levi describes a very sick and degraded morality, devoid of reason and poetry, he does hold out for the ultimate triumph of good, which Rankin has picked up on. Rankin’s wife, Lily Brett, who is an author, is the daughter of holocaust survivors, so he is obviously informed about all the dark consequences of that cataclysmic event. Dore Ashton, the curator of the exhibition seems to have put her finger on the impetus for his work when she describes his thought as achieving that pitch black Irishness that comes through Beckett and Joyce. She also describes him as having a deep moral imperative, which also might explain how he achieves such austerity in his paintings, seemingly representing the common good as pure light against a background of arbitrary blackness and immorality. His imagery consists of repeat motifs that conjures up the rhythm of a lamentation, and the delicate balance of intersection and circles seem to act like sparks, lighting the night and negating the mood of despair.

One thing that is evident in all his work is the fact that he has not abandoned his early influences. Looking at some of the work we can see remnants of Fred Williams in the way he approaches pictorial space, and his circles and dots also echo Fred Williams and to a lesser degree aboriginal motifs. The earliest painting in the show, Claypan (1967-68), a modest painting but a very important painting in terms of where it is pointing, seems to distil in its expressionism a moment of experience, a poetic moment when the world stops being purely physical form and becomes a source for codified imagery. It is as if Rankin, from his earliest days, digested the things around him and systematised them into an abstract language. You can see the influence of Paul Klee who was another great systematiser with both colour and form. Claypan is painted directly onto raw board to capture an earthy quality and rather than reproduce the geometry of a drying claypan he draws freely, with the emphasis on how the shapes work off each other, and the heavy lines, although they control the design of the piece, seem to suggests something else; a dark, impenetrable void.

This impenetrable darkness became a strong motif for Rankin in subsequent works. Black Prophecy Diptych (1998) is one such work. To invoke the writing of Samuel Beckett whose language seems to be intentionally obscure in order to contrast certain bons mots which jump out at us, so too we have Rankin applying his paint, the viscous substance, which then carries our eye to a place of incomprehension. Against this background he contrasts his “well formed phrases”, as in the case of Black Prophecy Diptych where two matching passages of horizontal lines leap forward from the obscurity of the background. The movement is so abrupt that we tend to view the lines in a singular fashion divorced from the background, but actually the background continues to play a role within our field of vision in a very active fashion. Certain colours, like deep reds and blues come forward and latch onto the horizontal bars playing up and down their length. This then becomes the ‘fire’ zone where the heat of the painting is generated and the rest of the painting functions as obscure ‘deep space’.

As a painter Rankin is probably closer to Motherwell than Rothko. Whereas Rothko’s paintings generate space infused with emotions, Motherwell’s paintings seem to generate space infused with shapes. Also, like Motherwell, Rankin works a lot from drawings, which are essentially visual notations. Frédéric-Yves Jeannet in his catalogue essay that accompanies the exhibition, writes how Rankin’s drawings give the notion of a hinterland (an outback). This is about a physical space that cannot really be described and essentially exists in the imagination. This is probably the thing about Australia that fascinates so many writers and painters, how to get a handle on something so vast and impenetrable as the outback. For Rankin it is this imaginary location that he works with. In his drawings he always puts down a wash first which will equal the location or base for the future painting. This location will be nebulous and amorphous, like a speeded up aerial camera version of the outback, where intersecting gorges and dry creeks and undulations are being crossed by changing patterns of cloud shadow. On top of this will come the lines, which are the human constructions, the lines of history drawn from a collective memory.

Harvey Shields

This small but succinct retrospective of David Rankin, gives us an insight into how the artist’s thoughts and seminal experiences have come to pervade his work in a very elemental and structured way. Rankin’s narrative is not explicit, but rather implicit in the way he handles the different themes of innocent victims and human relationships. He does not make moral judgements, but there is a deep conviction present in his work nevertheless, and following in the footsteps of Mark Rothko, his abstraction tries to express that which cannot be expressed in words. When one is drowning in emotion it is not possible to rationally step back and look at the cause of grief, but with hindsight, and an acute historical perspective, Rankin has found such a rational expression. With paintings like Black Prophecy Diptych or Golgotha Dream he is trying to distil the elements of transcendence that emanate from Jewish belief. This means finding a motif, a motif that is not explicit and yet can be read in terms of its symbolism.

Claypan 1968
acrylic on board 30 x 40cm


Elemental Union - The City III 2004
acrylic on linen 259 x 121cm


David Rankin Work: 1967-2004
After three years of development and preparation, the Tweed River Art Gallery has launched a major survey of the work of David Rankin curated by Dore Ashton, the internationally acclaimed American art critic, teacher and writer.

Throughout his career Rankin has been inspired by the physical landscape, philosophy and poetry, and he has explored with deep understanding the patterns and rhythms of nature. He has studied the elegance of Chinese calligraphy and its essential association with painting and poetry, and he has looked at the physical and historic structures of Jewish culture and the spiritual nature of 'union'. These concepts are expressed throughout his work, and this survey of fifty three paintings and drawings gives the viewer a rare opportunity to develop an understanding of his visual vocabulary.



Rankin has tended to work in series, to which he usually gives an over-arching title, such as 'Prophecy of Dry Bones' or 'Husband and Wife'. He is always exploring within these general categories, and the form and structure in his paintings invariably grows and changes. This exhibition will reveal the sources of his imagery, ranging from his perceptions of the landscape, especially deserts, to his response to the unspeakable tragedies of the 20th century.

The selected works show Rankin's range is quite broad, both emotionally and aesthetically. In honing his painterly intelligence, Rankin has roamed far in art and literary history, from ancient Chinese treatise, to Japanese haiku, to the Kabbalah; and he has roamed in the world having been inspired by the ancient stones of Jerusalem, the deserts in Mexico and his own Australian experiences.

Dore Ashton (24 June 2004, edited)

David Rankin was born in Devon, England in 1946.  He immigrated to Australia with his family in 1949. He spent his childhood in the 1950’s in the semi-rural Port Hacking region south of Sydney and his teenage years in country New South Wales, from Hay, Wagga Wagga and Albury in the south to Bourke and Brewarrina in the north. He is a self-taught artist developing his techniques and ideas in the outback towns of his youth.  Needless to say he read and was inspired by the great artists from Leonardo de Vinci to Paul Klee.  He also read and was influenced by the history of Buddhism and the art of Asia.

In his travels before he arrived in Sydney in 1967 he developed a concept of what he wanted to achieve as an Australian artist.  His dream was to express the anima, the life spirit or the essence of God in all nature.  To do this he declared that as an Australian artist he could bring the elements of Western Art together with an understanding and love for the cultures of Asia and the Australian Aborigine.  He also felt that as Australia was closer to the Orient than Europe it made sense to think about the art of Indian, Chinese and Japanese artists, and that one could not be an authentic articulate Australian artist without a love and respect for the artistic and spiritual expressions of the various Aboriginal peoples and cultures.  He felt that any Australian Art had to have a sense of place and that is nowhere better expressed than in Aboriginal painting.

Throughout his career it has been the inspiration of these early insights welded to the visual experience of his life whether outback claypans, the walls of Jerusalem or the deserts of Mexico that has produced so many moving and memorable paintings.

In the past three decades Rankin has held over 100 one-person exhibitions in cities as diverse as Paris, Beijing, New York and throughout Australia.  He is represented in many of the world's leading collections and museums.  He has been lavishly praised in the New York Times for the power, insight and quality of his work.  He was selected as Australia's official representative in the UNESCO Fortieth Anniversary Exhibition celebrations that toured the world's capitals.  He has been featured in the Salon I'Mai in Paris and the Chicago Art Fair.  Among the many prizes and awards he has been honoured with is the 1983 Wynne Prize, Australia's premier landscape prize.  Recently an English-German monograph on his work titled "The Walls of the Heart: The Work and Life of David Rankin" was published by the renowned US critic and art historian Dore Ashton.  Ashton is the author of many titles including The New York School and About Rothko.  In May 2005 a major exhibition of Rankin’s art, curated by Dore Ashton, will commence touring through public galleries in Australia. 

In 1989 Rankin moved with his wife, poet, essayist and novelist, Lily Brett to live in New York.  From their home in New York they continue to explore both their Australian roots and culture and the opportunities and challenges of an international community.

In his long career Rankin has followed his vision and painted images that have spoken, and continue to speak, his unique vocabulary to people of many countries and cultures.

David Rankin in his studio

Wall & Window - Jerusalem 1989
acrylic on canvas 197 x 243cm