Painted Girl - Familiar Trees of the North West
Familiar Trees of the North West
May 22, 2022
The world is always in motion. People are constantly moving from place to place. Even those parts of the earth bathed in the darkness of night, experiencing that period that was once reserved for the rejuvenating act of sleep, are lit by the sickly glow of all-night restaurants and bars, the sharp headlights of cargo trucks transporting materials and goods under cover of darkness.
We live in a 24-hour world. The demands of society have moved away from the notion of the right time, and instead have focused on anything, everywhere and at any time1. The active day and all its franticness has seeped into the silent night. And within this amorphous world stands the individual; impressionable, at the mercy of the experiences they may face, but eager to express themselves in a way that is effective for them.
For Keith Rankin, any time is the right time. Living with a circadian rhythm that does not wholly abide by the natural dark/light cycle, a lot of the time the glow of a computer screen is all he requires to set a creative spark alight.
Fittingly, sleep and all that comes with it is one of the first topics of our conversation. Keith speaks about suffering from bouts of sleep paralysis in his mid-20s. The feeling of an invisible force or anonymous figure being present in the room as he found himself trapped between the realms of dream and reality. He tells of the shocking realisation he had around that time, when memories of similar experiences from his youth came rushing back to him.
We talk about hypnagogia; that very defined state between being awake and being asleep. How it has its own sensations and rules. Those moments where the absurd characteristics of the unconscious mind bleed through the faultlines into the real. Our mind projecting surreal dream residue into the natural realm, and instilling unnatural and impossible characteristics onto everyday objects and creatures.
This is a fairly apt description of the realm that a lot of Keith Rankin’s art seems to exist in. Often characterised by incredibly vibrant colours, it is dreamlike and psychedelic. Examples of his commissioned work include the album covers of Rico Nasty’s Anger Management, death’s dynamic shroud’s Heavy Black Heart and Giraffage’s single Basketball. His art has also been used by publications like Bloomberg and High Snobiety. And when Keith is not painstakingly adding layers and depth onto some imagined landscape, he co-runs the popular electronic label Orange Milk Records and makes music himself under the name Giant Claw.
The video for Tool’s Sober is what is conjured up in Keith’s mind when I ask about the first piece of art that had an indescribably strong affect on him. Very young at the time, Keith describes ‘not being aware of the concept of people making music’ and just assumed that music and, to a larger extent art, was just something in and of itself. Beamed down to us through television sets and radios; an untouched and unaffected anomaly that seemed to happen without a cause or creator. A chilling thought, and one that speaks to that hazy reminiscence many will have when recalling an effective video or image from their early life.
The front and back cover of Miles Davis’ Live Evil is also one that is mentioned. A beautiful, otherworldly pair of images by Mati Klarwein; a pregnant woman next to a psychedelic serpentine head ablaze with fire on the front of the release, and a misshapen toad modelled on J. Edgar Hoover on the other. An album that’s contents Keith proceeded to acquaint himself with, having purchased it initially on the artwork’s merit alone, as he professes he has often found himself doing.
In these two instances, art is alien and unusual. In Mati Klarwein’s work, animation is implemented to achieve this uncanny appearance, whereas Tool’s video shuns our own reality to wallow in a creepy otherworldliness. If we take a look at some of Keith’s own work, for example the cover for Koeosaeme’s OBANIKESHI on Orange Milk Records, we find a piece that speaks to this same feeling. The colours are bright and friendly, but Keith has included an unfamiliar and unfinished humanoid to obscure familiarity and push the focus onto an imagined reality. The viewer finds themselves caught by the uncanny gaze of the android-like face. One side of the bust seems artificial and unreal, and the other incredibly lifelike and emotive. Elevated by the pillar of water standing astute in a block, defying any natural logic.
This art is the perfect accompaniment to a wild and frantic album that assumes many forms and textures over its runtime. Liquid-like sounds clash with solid structures in a desperate attempt to find formula amidst sonic ruin. One can lose themselves listening to OBANIKESHI while staring at Keith’s art, wondering how someone could even generate such sounds and images.
Of course, this penchant to drift toward the strange and unreal is something deeper than a mere aesthetic picked up for fun. It is an example of the unyielding presence of experience. As Keith says to me ‘everyone is a product of the culture they are part of. Whether you like it or not, your surroundings and lived experience will imprint themselves onto your understanding of the world’. The examples given of Sober and Miles Davis’s Live Evil are part of Keith’s own lived experience. Rather than shy away from this fact, he chooses to embrace it, accepting that when you enter into an artistic dialogue, there is an almost subconscious acceptance of the fact that your entire life has led up to that point. Every brushstroke or hue added is laden with an undergrowth of experience and hidden motivation, even when these things are not at the forefront of your mind.
‘Whether you like it or not, your surroundings and lived experience will imprint themselves onto your understanding of the world’
This incessant spectre of experience haunting your artistic work may sound scary. Like some ravenous beast always demanding to be fed. So, in order to dilute it down to a point of utility, one can make use of surface level boundaries. A certain set of colours and the implementation of a specific backdrop are good examples for visual art. A solid tempo or a set number of tracks may suffice when creating audio. There is also the omnipresent figure of time standing on the horizon (a big factor in commissioned work) that can help you to hasten your stride. When you set these limitations down or make yourself aware of them, they can light a number of possible paths through creative work, from there you implement your skillset to help you take the first few steps. In these primary stages, it can be helpful to not give thought to a conclusive idea of your creation’s meaning. Keith purports that thinking about it too much can be harmful to the process, and the best thing to do is ‘analyse what it could mean later’.
When you begin a creative journey, your sphere of influence guides your step, unbeknownst to you. Situations you’ve experienced, or things that you have attached your own identity to will emerge from the creation. It is important not to immediately shun these instances in any knee jerk reaction. This is you entering into a communication with your lived experience.
These are all things to bear in mind when consuming art as well. When you listen to music, you can pick up on hints about the creator while you appreciate it. Unfortunately though, creators will often shroud these clues in mystery, or purposely integrate red herrings as their main concern is to remain a shapeshifting, amorphous force behind their work. We talk about how Taylor Swift’s newest album is a perfect example of the elusive identity of the artist. Folklore’s message and ideals have probably been hauled through countless boardrooms and pawed over by execs. And even in its contents, one can find a long list of co-writers and creators. She is a talented musician and songwriter, that much is certain. But when we trawl through the album’s content, where can we find or correctly identify the artist and their lived experience? It is difficult to know.
For Keith, knowing the intent is an integral aspect of the job, at least when it comes to creating art for music. On top of this, what makes the job more difficult is the esoteric nature of the music itself. Those that approach Keith are often artists making very experimental music that intentionally pushes boundaries when it comes to sound and composition. This presents the visual artist with an obstacle from the very beginning.
Fire-Toolz excursion on Keith’s own Orange Milk Records serves as a great example. Field Whispers (Into The Crystal Palace) is a fiery and often jagged explosion of unpredictable timing and digitally corrupt screams. At every opportunity, the album shirks the easy route and favours incredibly tortuous terrain.
So when sitting down to illustrate a Fire-Toolz album, what hope does one have? Or a less dramatic question would be, how does one start?
For the Fire-Toolz release, jazz fusion is a genre held fairly close throughout. Some characteristics that Keith felt were pertinent to this style of music were a sense of spiritual completion and the restlessness of nature. We as voyeurs can ponder on the presence of such symbols in the finished artwork, we may see the spirituality in the docile nature of the mystic peacock that fills the main part of the scene, or nature’s awe-inspiring power in the cracks of metallic blue lightning that strike off into the distance.
Inspiration can come in many forms. For Keith, the surreal world of the internet is the place he finds the most creatively rousing. He tells me of his inspiration folder, a secret and ever-growing trove of images that lives on his computer. A little folder icon that once clicked unleashes scores of eye-catching imagery and art.
‘Some people may pull that sort of inspiration out of thin air, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the arts, of interacting with art and the experience of looking at something that sparks creative energy.’
When he began creating visual art, he would use images as starting points to work off of. Keith’s early work shows an interest in a collage-based approach, a blending of pictures into the same background. But as things became a little more serious and he started to work in a more commercial realm, Keith began to create separate aspects of a picture completely from scratch. Now, a great deal of the images in that infamous folder are merely a taper to set his own creative process off. However, one can see the effect that this curiosity in collaging had on his style.
Many of Keith’s pieces almost look as if we are watching him click open a selection of different images from his folder. There is a distinct dynamic; creatures, streams of colour, amorphous beings and more all jostle for space. It is almost as if we are half asleep, shuffling past his workstation and glancing quickly at his screen as all the windows and boxes he has open bleed into one.
The inspiration folder reportedly lives up to its name. Keith says that when he admires the art and images stored in there, that moment of artistic clarity can come incredibly quickly. Looking at the beauty of his work, it is a wonder that such concepts and ideas can be conjured in his mind so instantaneously.
Our conversation veers more into Keith’s musical output. Soft Channel was his last big release under his musical moniker Giant Claw. A frantic, 8-track excursion showcasing fiery vocal sampling and jagged midi-synthesis. The concept of interruption is a huge part of its sound. He spoke about his delight in building a track with an explicit momentum and feeling, to then suddenly throw the listener completely, discarding all of what has come before by interrupting it with a new sequence right in the middle of the song’s runtime. These moments make for a listening experience that almost has you doubled over in a stance of intense and agonising focus.
This idea of interruption clearly shows that the creative energy and talent that Keith so boldly displays in his visual art finds a home in musical composition too. And it also feels as though there are many different avenues and paths that he is able to walk when making music that are cordoned off when it comes to visual art. Both because of the refreshing contrast of audio synthesis, but also because there isn’t that aspect of commissions and deadlines as overarching context.
This can be evidenced as he begins to talk about a new project he’s been working on ‘forever’. And how with his music under Giant Claw, every new album or EP has felt like a complete reinvention and rebirth of style and interest. It’s fairly evident that a creative renaissance of this magnitude in his visual art may not fit well with his constantly busy schedule.
Orange Milk Records continue to release incredibly innovative and exciting projects under the watch of Keith and his friend Seth Graham. One of the most notable releases to come from the record label recently was Eyeliner’s Drop Shadow (read our review here). It was an eagerly awaited release, and with Keith providing the visual art, a sought after cassette.
The idea of Drop Shadow was initially revealed to Keith by Eyeliner (or Luke Rowell) around the time that the now legendary Buy Now was released. In Keith’s own words, it started when he asked Luke to do an album five years ago. This request started an email-based chain reaction that spanned from 2015 all the way up to the present day. Luke told him throughout the exchange that he needed time to figure the project out, as it was bandied about the creative aether, and Keith told him to take all the time that he needed. The result was a hugely rewarding experience for Orange Milk Records, Luke and the eagerly waiting listeners. Drop Shadow showed that Eyeliner could preserve an incredible geometric sound, whilst injecting a real sense of emotive presence.
Keith’s art for Drop Shadow is well worth a mention. A striking yellow-blue gradient as a background, halcyonic purple clouds give support to a brutal maze-like structure. And on top of it all, a fantastic wooden mannequin mascot shrugging, one solitary eye staring out towards the viewer. Keith tells me recently he’s really been into mascots. Little figures or avatars that are designed to look like they are used to represent a group, company or entity. There is something hilariously non sequitur about the mannequin man, his unassuming stance, his piercing cycloptic stare. Something about the mascot is so fascinatingly mundane. It is from a different less dramatic world than the mystic peacock or the uncanny android figure, but vibrant and engaging all the same.
Keith’s visual work is mercilessly engaging. His music is boundless and explorative, and his work as a label manager is thoughtful and diligent. To gaze upon his art is to throw yourself into the world he has created. The passion with which he approaches both commissioned and recreational pieces is equal to the depth of the music that acts as his muse. His work dives deep into the subconscious mind and the world around us to retrieve rare pearls of beauty and enlightenment. His artwork is not merely employed to depict a mood, but is worn as a badge of honour by those artists and labels lucky enough to work with him. Keith Rankin’s visual art acts as a clear and defined window into the invisible world of music.
Article edited by Iz Morris
1. Costa, G. (2002). The 24-hour society between myth and reality. Journal of human ergology, 30(1-2):15-20. <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/9045789_The_24-hour_society_between_myth_and_reality>