Retrospective and introspective: The work of artist David Rankin

David Rankin in his Shelter Island studio with two of his recent works. (Credit: Allison Weibye)

David Rankin in his Shelter Island studio with two of his recent works. (Credit: Allison Weibye)

We may be in the midst of the quiet months here on Shelter Island, but on Midway Road, the expansive art studio of David Rankin has been a hive of activity in recent weeks. 

That’s because Mr. Rankin is preparing for not one, but a pair of art exhibitions that will open later this year in his native Australia.

“One exhibit is of recent paintings — what I’m thinking about now and producing,” Mr. Rankin explained. “The other is a retrospective from the first years, 50 years ago. That show will be whoever I was, or thought I was, when I was 20, 21 or 22 in the late 60s.”

Both shows will be in Melbourne and the new works show opens at Mossgreen Gallery on August 16, while the retrospective at Charles Nodrum Gallery opens the following day. The exhibits feature 20 or so pieces each, and while that may not sound like a lot for an artist as prolific as Mr. Rankin, distilling a life’s work to a limited number of representative offerings is actually a big job. Helping Mr. Rankin these days is studio assistant Allison Weibye, who was brought in specifically for this project, and Mr. Rankin’s studio manager, Kenny McGuinness.

Still, just like cleaning out the attic or delving into a box of family memories, it’s not always an easy process, emotionally speaking.

“It sounds like a simple exercise of housekeeping, but it turns out to be a major life evaluation, which wasn’t welcome,” Mr. Rankin said. “I didn’t realize it was going to be as much an upheaval as it’s becoming. It’s left me quite sleepless, going through the work.

“You’re reliving many parts of your life. A lot of the work was very distressing, or uplifting, or it challenged what you thought you were doing,” he said. “It addresses the problem of what did I actually achieve?”

David Rankin in his studio. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

David Rankin in his studio. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

By all accounts, Mr. Rankin has achieved quite a lot in his career. Though he and his wife, author Lily Brett, have lived in the U.S. for nearly three decades, he was quite well-known in Australia as a young artist, which is largely why these two exhibitions are being offered now.

“Lily said, ‘Most of the people who saw your work in the 60s are dead, or retired. There are very few people around who saw the work — no one knows what you did,’” Mr. Rankin said.

It is interesting to note how Mr. Rankin’s work has evolved over time. When asked how he’s changed as an artist in the course of his long career, Mr. Rankin replied, “I think I’m fresher and younger now.”

He may be joking, but in many ways, he’s not wrong. His current work references themes that he first began exploring as a teenager — specifically the influences of Buddhism, as well as Japanese, Chinese and Indian cultures.

“The paintings I’m doing now reflect the interest I discovered then. I’m working through it with a fresh and much clearer understanding in terms of a life, not simply in terms of what you project it might be,” he said. “Most of my work is very much a spiritual odyssey. I’ve explored so many religious themes. I’ve done many portraits of people, I’ve done ceramics and sculpture — but mainly the areas where I can explore the more intense themes have been in abstract formats.”

Based on his early years, it would have been hard to fathom that Mr. Rankin would grow up to be an artist at all. The son of working class parents, his father was a boxer and a boot maker and Mr. Rankin was raised not in the cosmopolitan heart of Melbourne or Brisbane, but the Outback town of Bourke, a dry and dusty outpost 500 miles northwest of Sydney and about as far as you can get from an artistic and cultural haven.

Fortunately, Mr. Rankin had a teacher who recognized his keen artistic interest and vision early on and encouraged him with a book on Leonardo DaVinci.

“I read it and thought, it’s got to be better than a being a boxer,” he said.

David Rankin in his studio. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

David Rankin in his studio. (Credit: Annette Hinkle)

Serendipity intervened when Mr. Rankin met an engineer and hydrographer with the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission in a pub in Bourke. He encouraged Mr. Rankin to get a job with the organization.

“I joined them and they trained me. I ended up traveling the Outback in a van with hydrographic equipment gauging rivers and streams,” Mr. Rankin explained. “The irony was, there was no water in the rivers or streams. It was like a Zen Buddhist exercise. My charts all had ‘no flow’ written across them.”

But the man who helped him get the job invited Mr. Rankin to visit him in Sydney where he lived. That’s where the young artist began going to galleries and meeting people who helped hone his skills. And along with way, he developed a vision — one that combines the aboriginal imagery of the Outback with the stylistic mechanisms of the Far East. That inspiration still informs his aesthetic and the walls of Mr. Rankin’s Island studio are filled with vertical abstract works that have the shape and feel of Chinese hanging scrolls with references of aboriginal inspired markings.

“The work is really the inner world and who you are, what you are, where you came from, what you dreamt about, what you fantasized about, things that excited you,” he said.

Though he doesn’t use the environment as literal source material, after years of living in New York City, Mr. Rankin appreciates the way in which the rural life on Shelter Island facilitates contemplation and encourages quiet thoughts.

“It’s nourishing being surrounded by nature,” he said. “It’s like a balm on the soul. It means you can have access to deeper and more longing thoughts than you could if you were distracted all the time.

“Coming to Shelter Island, one of the things we found attractive is that it reminded us of Australia in that it was laid back, individualistic and surrounded by nature.”