They could have been folded. Reminiscent of the blooming psychoses found in Rorschach pyschometric tests, or impressionist constellations on astrological charts, Jessica Rankin’s new exhibition at the White Cube charts the fleeting impressions of life, depicting thought, feeling and memory to construct vast mind-maps.  As deliberate as stitch, but as frail as gossamer, Rankin is less well-known for her graphite drawings, seen here for the first time. 

In an exhibition which attempts to tie up loose ends, frayed fabrics and trailing threads, presenting twelve discrete webs of association on canvas, does meaning recede into the background?  What could be viewed as mere amorphous splotches on a page, or delicate metallic fibres feeding through in long fluid lines, is complicated by the lilting intersections of words, phrases and speech. Are the ‘shapes’ of these words however, as used in Rankin’s conceptually nimble needlework, really 'equally as important as their meaning'?

This is an accusation ever leveled at the assumed frivolity of stitchwork. Best known for her organdie ‘embroidered paintings’ that featured in her first show at the White Cube in 2007, the Australian-born, New York-based artist Jessica Rankin toys with methods traditionally identified as feminine pursuits. The use of the stitch in a number of recent female artists' work, such as within the fragile thready nudes of Tracey Emin or enclosing the seamed phallic globs of Yayoi Kusama (recently at the Tate Modern), replay the same set of gender confrontations. Where they used the stitch to shock, to stridently expose the inner strength of the female physique, Rankin is less figurative.  It is Rankin’s abstracted use of language in stitch that truly reveals her work's conceptual potential, not her combative medium.  She may reclaim the stitch as an illustrative device, trailing the narrative implications of needlework, but in her fingers it is also an iterative act, a litany of memorized movements. As Rankin herself has stated, ‘sewing has a longevity, a resonance’ that requires an ongoing relationship, like ‘the repetitive motion of a word in your head, which lingers and returns.’

Deft with a needle, she treats her canvases like gossamer planes through which the thread delves. Yarns trace the outlines of shapes, connect disparate elements in webbed lines, lay exposed or hidden, and cluster to form words that flutter in their indiscernability. Her lines are never fluid: they pucker and perturb the surface to create her web-like, sprawling associative canvases, clotting poetic phrases, abstract shapes, personal histories, roads taken, moments forgotten, images remembered.  Perhaps her most affecting piece found here is the large-scale Quid Est Iste Qui Venit (2012), which takes its form from the stellar constellation as recorded on the evening of her mother’s death, intermingling disjunctive phrases and words which mash into one another.  

Yet, where the breakdown in meaningful language here acts as a structuring device to document a period of intense emotional turmoil, the same tactic of concretized language does not carry quite the same levity in the six other needlepoint works.  It becomes a common conceit. Where the phrases in in Quid Est Iste Qui Venit are poignant in their cracked-up desolation, the random utterances of her other pieces become inane; the piece Stooped (2012) blandly asks ‘Shall I find it?’  Loosed from any associative bent, these words are merely placed on the camvas, and positioned much like her florid patterning, they are not present.

And it is in fact her large-scale globular drawings that take precedence, showcased for the first time as a new directive in Rankin’s work. Positioned centrally on each wall, these works behave in a similar layered manner to her stitchwork, as scribbled patches of graphite overlay pools of muted watercolour. The catalogue makes grand claims for both Rankin’s gauzy stitch-scapes and her etched mind-maps, in which Lawrence Hua describes her work as embodying a ‘tension between personal time and domestic space and historical time and geo-political space.’  Yet surely the ‘tension’ within the works are entirely of her own making?

Her pieces may peel at the seams in veils, mists and planes, stretched taught across the white board canvases, but if she could treat language with a similar diaphanous intelligence, with less of the whimsy and more of the intuition, these would be true works of resonanceas opposed to reiteration.  Rankin is at her most provocative at the level of language, as seen in the metonymic games at play in one or two pieces exhibited here, such as the ‘plump,’ ‘wet,’ ‘soft’ ‘stoop’ of Stooped (2012). Rankin claimed in a recent interview that she has a ‘very ambivalent feeling about language,’ sensing that ‘on the one hand, it’s a refuge, and on the other hand, [she] resents it…’  If Rankin could construct a language in a mode just as lyrical as her spooling forms, a language of real metaphoric potential, then meaning would no longer be elusive, but evanescent.

Jessica Rankin, at White Cube Hoxton Square: ClosedNatalie Ferris reviews Jessica Rankin's exhibition Skyfolds 1941-2010 at the White Cube Hoxton Square.3