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Jerry Rankin's down and dirty divinity

A sigh escapes from a divine being, the breath, slow and soft, parts for a moment the sacred curtain. There, “Lumen,” a window into the holy. Two shimmering copper bars on either side of the canvas point the vision to center where light hangs, broken in loose panels. You have seen the colors. The ones murmured by clouds as the setting sun dawdles behind them. The orange that pulses and fades into pink that melts into lavender, then disappears. What a relief to find, in the inaccessible holy, a small field of disorder, a smudge of blood and gut. The meeting of the divine and those shapes that howl below is not a collision. It is not a clash. Purity, rather, encompasses the darker shades, the gravel and grit as intrinsic as the clean and unwavering ray of light. Like an expanse of white tile that somehow looks more sincere with a single, mud-caked sneaker flung in the corner.

“Lumen” is one of about twenty pieces by Jerome E. Rankin on display at the Missoula Art Museum until February 8. The exhibit, Jerry Rankin: Recent Works, weaves back and forth between the wide, singing, acrylic-strewn canvases and the smaller, sinister graphite sketches that beckon with a gnarled finger. The juxtaposition is necessary. It brings an equilibrium to the exhibit’s shift from exterior to interior, from an abundance of color to its absence, from the underworld to the heavens, from quick chromatic scales in a syncopated rhythm to the dull, muted thudding of a far-off timpani. The works have been produced by Rankin over the past two years.

It is not a criticism to say that the most eng-aging element of the graphite pieces lies just outside the canvas. It is a reflection of the subtle genius of the composition. Sit for a moment with “Exit” and you’ll dip into the recesses of someone else’s subconscious. But stay a while longer. Take a few breaths. The highway travels off of the canvas where you are left with the images your own mind conjures in dreamland, monochromatic slumber scenes where clouds can swallow people whole and they can rain but the water is black and though it pours, still, everything is parched. Suddenly, what is eerie within the gray borders becomes safe and known and familiar. The graphite-covered canvases show you a door ajar, or a misplaced staircase, or a short pier and its fading memory, or some mountains and burning bushes below. If you wait long enough to see outside the door, around the dark slashes behind the window, down the pier, there, off the canvas, are the pictures projected from your own mind. These are the invasive pieces in the exhibit; there, unexpectedly, you are.

The exhibit works because breaking away is allowed. The journey is tolerable because the acrylics permit you to turn your eyes outward again, draw more air into your compressed lungs. What Rankin does with acrylic is present the innate organization of nature, the composition of it, its method and structure. Simultaneously, Rankin delves into what is feral and wild, untamed and excessive. Within the same piece, he captures two viewpoints.

As with the graphites, an extended visit with the acrylics is helpful. It’s also less threatening. Initially, the paintings slap you with loud voices, dizzy you with fierce twists and turns, warm you with shrieking color. But again, wait just a moment. Inside lives an organic form, a certain safety, a stillness that’s secure. Viewing these canvases is akin to the shock of seeing a forest of overgrown ferns, their wild arms sweeping with abandon, then turning over a single frond to find the tidy sym-metrical rows of spores beneath.

“Latitude” captures the opposition, too; it is a stern, straight schoolmarm slapping a ruler for quiet while a class of children roars. You’re suspended between something fresh, messy and tempestuous, like a loud belly laugh or a teetering bucket of overripe raspberries, and something much cooler and more reserved. “Parallax” is sliced horizontally; a shape above, a shape below. Each shape, a vortex containing the energy of a racehorse, jittering, snorting, and throwing his head, yet restrained in a stall before the gate swings open. It’s energy on the brink of explosion.

The forms create a strong gravitational pull into the painting. While they tug you closer, the methodical lines, the rigid forms that overlay and underlie the singing chaos, loud but in tune, in harmony, keep you steady and on both feet. A tension, a perfect equilibrium, draws you roughly into a painting, while holding you steady at arm’s length. There is an acknowledgement of what is ordered with no abnegation of disorder. Like wide, straight rows of raised garden beds, carefully tended, then gloriously overgrown with dandelions and thistles and rambling zucchini.

The effect of balance and imbalance is partially the result of something magical. It might also be in the broad, black brushstrokes that accentuate and direct the energy, motion and rhythm of the colors. Whatever it is, when it gets too loud, return to the graphites, where Rankin offers the stark places, inhospitable to anything but the apprehension and anxiety simmering in your own veins.

Rankin received his MFA from the University of Montana, and he lives and paints outside of Bozeman. Stephen Glueckert, Curator of the museum, writes this about the exhibit and about Rankin: “Today, [Rankin] is creating the work of his life, and however skeptical he may be of the truth of his own marks, these works convince us of it.”

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