New York

Jessica Rankin

The Project

Jessica Rankin’s first solo show in New York was titled “The Pale Cast of Thoughts,” and it’s worth considering what this reference might mean. “And thus,” says Hamlet, “the native hue of resolution / Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” He is berating himself for not doing anything about his father’s murder when his soliloquy is interrupted by his virginal female foil, the dutiful daughter and future suicide. “Soft you now,” he murmurs, “The fair Ophelia. – Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remembered.” Ophelia is fair, just as thought is pale, and she thinks too much; her prayers and memories make her ill. Activity in Hamlet’s terms is ruddy, resolute, while speech and cogitation are effeminate and wan. In the grip of such sick language, the “name of action” turns awry, gets lost, and only pious, girlish passivity remains to tell of male misdeeds.

The work of Jessica Rankin—translucent organdy panels embroidered with doodly symbols and snippets of her own poetic text—centers on this point of contact between thinking and doing. Her fragile tapestries cross gallant, masculine pursuits like exploration, cartography, and painting with femininely coded pastimes such as needlework, daydreaming, and diary keeping. Along the way, she takes up questions of reading versus seeing, transparency versus opacity, and sense versus nonsense.

Rankin was born in Australia, and the four large works in her show employ a private code of meandering marks and almost illegible words to record a recent road trip from the coast of Melbourne into the continent’s “red center.” Red (that “native hue”) appears only as a flash of flamelike thread in In a Moment of Complete Blankness, 2003. Instead the general palette is blue-black and white, as if the traveler noted impressions only at midnight and noon. Rankin sews square fabric scraps of a single thickness into asymmetrical grids that are pinned taut to the wall; the overlapped seams read as lines dividing counties on a map, or the edges of quilt blocks, or page breaks in a document. Because the layer of organdy is floated off the wall, the embroidery casts shadows like underdrawing behind an overleaf or veil. A sort of visual rustle suggestive of women’s clothing rises from this material, a conceal/reveal tension that also ties into Rankin’s deliberate verbal obscurantism. Fine-spun and see-through, the cotton stands metonymically for summer frocks and petticoats but also acts as canvas and writing paper, pierced and covered by the imbricated stitches that decorate it. The dark blue cloth of Nocturne, 2004, is flecked with light blue and pale yellow stitching in spirals and dot-dash lines that recall cave paintings, star charts, animal trails; the brown square at the bottom right of Coda, 2004, contrasts against the otherwise white textile like the titular end-stop. Across each panel weave dense strings of run-together words embroidered in black—MESSAGESTILLSAVEDOFHIGHFREQUENCY or SOMUTED or LATERTHEYGATHERINTOTHEMES.

This mood of clotted evanescence draws together a series of concentric relationships—the phrase that wears a groove inside the mind, the body that molds a shape into the dress, the human carving a path into the landscape, the gesture arranging a pattern in the artwork. There is always the risk that when too many strands knot they will tangle, and—as do Hamlet and Ophelia—Rankin’s word-pictures flirt with hermeticism and communication breakdown. But even though the language resists reading, the images invite and soothe the eye; they are spacious, teasing, pretty, and ultimately optimistic in their lightness. Shakespeare, after all, may praise decisive action and downplay brooding verbiage. But in the end, he always takes the writer’s part.

Frances Richard