In an art world saturated with the glossy, the slick, the unemotional and the impersonal, the work of New York-based Australian artist Jessica Rankin refreshes and delights. Private, unpretentious and meticulously labored, the six works in her exhibition “Passages” at Trois Gallery of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta through May 31 — two large-scale 7-by-7-foot drawings and four embroidery “paintings” stitched on gossamer organdy fabric — present an artist quietly self-possessed.
While you might call her a landscape painter of sorts, Rankin’s work expounds and reconstitutes this traditional form by altering and re-altering the viewer’s geographical orientation. Geography, for her, is a mutable concept depending on where your eyes might be looking. Fashioning a perspective that is both above and below, she obfuscates the horizon line, giving the appearance of looking in multiple directions at once. What might be constellatory coordinates in the night sky could also be landmarks on a topographical map, or perhaps a pile of rubbish sitting beneath a fiery, setting sun, as in “Empty Night.”
The simultaneity that this multiplicity of orientations presents is one that the artist purposely constructs, for her work encapsulates the temporality of a discreet private moment — a memory, a thought, a phrase, a feeling — and places it concurrently within a broader, macro relationship to time — geological time, space-time or perhaps even timelessness — with equal conviction.
The daughter of a poet, Rankin articulates the nuance of these private moments with language she literally stitches with thread into the surface of the work. Her texts combine her own writing, overheard conversations and text she has found, seen or remembered. Interested in the way words are capable of communicating as well as miscommunicating, she relies on misspellings, misinterpretations and misunderstanding as the very content of the works themselves.
Partly influenced by the concrete poetry of the 1950s, the shape and rearrangement of Rankin’s text is equally as important as its verbal significance. Whimsical reconfigurations such as “WHO THISIS ISTHIS” or “PUSHINGSO METHINGA WAY” emerge as strange new utterances, as though learning to speak for the first time. In an interview published by White Cube, the London gallery that represents her, Rankin refers to these works as “brainscapes” and explains, “I realized that thoughts are not logical — they move around.”
Through the reshaping of language, she isolates our predetermined understanding of a word and its multiple cultural implications by reorienting the way we see it. Appearing as coordinates on these deeply personal cartographic works, words stop being words and instead become newfangled sounds and syllables steeped in poetic meaning. Some combinations take on a slow, deliberate, contemplative state. Others are so fraught and jumbled that you’re left wanting to escape the entanglement and confusion they conjure up.
Many of the pieces here are part of Rankin’s “Skyfold” series and are tethered — in title, content or both — to personally significant dates. “Quis Est Iste Qui Venit” (“Who is this who is coming?”), for example, takes its title from the ghost stories of M.R. James and is derived from a map of the night sky the evening Rankin’s mother died.
Rankin curiously refers to her work as “embodied,” which makes sense at a very basic level, given the often biological feeling of the imagery she employs. A threaded neurological network seems to grow upon the surface of each work, firing stitched synapses from one corner of the organdy to the other. Laced tendrils drip uncannily like paint or fluids from the body.
But perhaps it is also Rankin’s physical relationship to her process that provides this felt corporeality. In the way photographer Pinky Bass might attempt to make sense of surgeries she endured by carving with needle and thread into her photographs of her body, Rankin similarly seems to make sense of her inner geography by carving with needle and thread into these biographically associative maps.
Also in the exhibit are two enormous drawings on watercolor paper. Absent any text at all, they are instead made of innumerable hatch-marks, forming nebulous shapes reminiscent of cloud formations or cross-sections of the human brain. The obsessiveness of the artist’s process here, as in “Seasky: 28 Nov., 1970,” as well as in her embroidered works, gives the feeling of one absorbed in a contemplative state, as she seems to be contemplating “mind” while perhaps elevating her own within her process.
Rankin visually locates herself within an immeasurable human context of what she deems life-affirming, and she does it one mark at a time, one thread at a time, stitch by stitch, in what amounts to a meticulously composed, deeply thoughtful impression of the minutes of her life.