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Subject:  The Art of David Rankine

 

" I feel that I am painting portraits of God"

by Nikki Abraham for the Catholic New Times (1998)

David Rankine defies categorization. He looks like a lumberjack, but his working day is spent hunched over a desk painting intricate works of art. He is as affable and unpretentious as your average furnace repairman, yet he is one of a select group of contemporary Celtic artists whose work is inspired by ancient Celtic art but is completely original.

Rankine is equally at home showing his large framed works in an art gallery, taking commissions for church decorations, or fashioning unique jewellery and selling it at craft fairs. Yet his "serious" works are undeniably sublime. they both inspire a spiritual response and spring from it, objects which are meditative yet vibrant, colourful and active.

Born of Scottish parents who emigrated from Ayrshire in 1954, David Rankine was raised Presbyterian and for a time was an elder in the church. These days, he sees himself as ecumenical: "God is energy... a mass of energy and creation - that's how I perceive God. The Celtic motifs are, by nature, interrelated and interlocked. It's the same with creation: God is in the details! When I am doing these paintings I feel like I am painting portraits of God.... though the work is becoming less illustrative all the time ... they give a glimpse of reality, a back -and- forth between control and chaos" .

When he was 13 years old, David began playing bagpipes and continued to play for some years. he also learned Scottish country dancing and currently plays a mountain Dulcimer. he sees a connection between all forms of Celtic art, with the spiral as the operative symbol.

Although there is simplicity, - the bagpipe, for instance only has nine different notes and no sharps or flats - when the art is practiced as it should be, it is incredibly complex, rhythms within rhythms within rhythms, radiating energy and life.

 The art form (piping) can have a tendency to become static or predictable, but it should, in David's view, retain a certain looseness. He points out that the traditional music for the pipes had no time signatures. It should be pulsating, at once complex and difficult, clear and unified.

This, too, is how David Rankine see his own visual art. Though the work is structured and precise, within its unyielding borders the very mass of details produces an "overall surface shimmer", a sort of now-you-see-it, now-you-don't effect. In this context, the "photo-realist" landscapes that occur as a focal point in his work "take (the viewer) in through the centre of the piece."

When David Rankine talks this way about Celtic-based art, certain Hindu images of the divine come to mind - for instance, in the Baghavad-Gita, how the human incarnation of one of the gods opens his mouth and the whole of the universe is contained there. In one of David's favourite quotes, from Speaking in Tongues  by Peter Jones, mentions the Hindus: "the Hindus have a well-defined mythology of creation being besotted: a vitality that so overflows all its modalities that it appears totally chaotic: incomprehensible to the sober mind."

It is out of this awareness - of the thin line between order and chaos, between clarity and confusion- that David Rankine works , to "try to convey the fabric of our reality as we perceive it". Sometimes, he says, he is "close to painting pure feeling".

The representational elements are there partly because he loves painting landscapes, but also so that the viewers can have something to recognize and hold onto, a contrast from the Celtic forms' mass of energy covering the rest of the picture plane. This is needed because we are not used to seeing works like the Book of Kells. Its conventions predate modern Western ways of looking at art. there is, for example, no foreground or background. "I try to take the ancient art and make it legible for modern eyes".

 In his third year in the fine arts program at York University, David began to copy some of the great works of Celtic Art. He still finds inspiring the Chi Rho page from the Book of Kells. the first piece of Celtic art he copied. He calls it the "ultimate work of Celtic art". Other works in the book are more linear in arrangement; the Chi Rho page is a mass of spinning forms. It took some time to figure out how it was put together, but once he did, it was like having a key.

Eventually he began to use this key to unlock the door to his own imaginative world, a world he is still exploring, a world that both expresses his spirituality and brings him closer to God. The world changes, grows, develops, but the magic key is attached to a thread that is never broken, no matter how many serpentine twists and turns it may take.

In fact, we might imagine that the key is in the from of a Celtic Cross. It's a good symbol for David's work, too. Sometimes complex, sometimes simple; sometimes humble, sometimes mythic; active, yet calm; Christian and pre-Christian; ancient as the land, new as today's dew on the green grass.