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Picture a World With No Limits

Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

In an art world organized by categories and “isms,” Susan Rankaitis would appear to be a hopeless misfit. Propelled by an inquiring mind, a wandering spirit and a profound disrespect for traditional boundaries, she reads voraciously, grapples with scientific theories and produces artistic hybrids that merge photography, painting and sculpture.

About 30 examples of her work from the late 1980s and ‘90s will go on view in “Susan Rankaitis: Drawn From Science,” opening next Sunday at the Museum of Photographic Art in San Diego. The first work visitors will see--suspended in the atrium of the recently expanded museum--is “Great Salt Lake Piece,” a 14-by-14-foot spiral construction composed of enormous transparencies depicting the lake in Utah.

“The atrium is flooded with natural light, so the transparency and lightness of the work will be seen at its best,” said Diana Gaston, who organized the show but left her curatorial position at the museum last fall. She now lives in the Bay Area, where she writes and manages art acquisitions for nextmonet.com, an online gallery at https://www.nextmonet.com.

“Susan’s work is so far beyond what we normally think of when we think of photographs, that just presenting it presents certain challenges,” Gaston said. “The museum’s new space is perfectly suited to the scale of the work, but we had to wait for the opportunity. We couldn’t do it justice in the former quarters.”

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Rankaitis, who turned 50 in September, has used photographic materials and techniques for more than 20 years--but with the sensibility of a painter who isn’t afraid to wander into the territory of sculpture. Using multiple printings and negatives, she typically bleaches, tints and brushes photographic chemicals on huge sheets of light-sensitive paper to create unique, metallic-toned works that fill entire walls or hang from ceilings. Although her art reads as lyrical abstraction, it’s inspired by her fascination with subjects ranging from Chinese painting and the Great Salt Lake to aerospace, genetic codes and chaos theory.

“Her greatest contribution is not only expanding the physical notion of a photograph but also expanding the conceptual notion of what a photograph might be,” Gaston said. “She has pushed the scale and the surface of a photograph to a new place. I came to her work primarily because I was interested in her experimental approach and how she was creating these incredibly gorgeous, luminous surfaces, but I didn’t realize the depth of her research and inquiry until I started to delve into the material myself.”

Gaston views Rankaitis’ work as “a collage of contemporary culture. She is assembling random bits and essential components of our culture, and just putting it all out there for us to explore and piece together.” While the experience can be baffling, viewers can unravel it gradually, the curator said. “I don’t think it’s necessary to have read about chaos theory in depth, although Susan has, or to understand how our genetic structure works, although she has certainly spent a lot of time with it.

“She is taking a sampling of very complex issues and theories that affect us and presenting them in a visual way,” Gaston said. “We might not completely understand the Human Genome Project or understand how DNA is structured or what it might mean, but the notion of genetic mutation and engineering is on our minds. We’ve been wondering how it might impact our world. And the same with technology. She taps into this broad cultural consciousness and gives shape to some of these ideas.”

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With all these forces at play in her work, it’s no wonder that Rankaitis confronted resistance in her early years. “I remember when I had my first solo show, in 1981, at Light Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard,” she said during an interview at the studio she shares with her husband, photographer Robbert Flick, in an industrial zone of downtown Los Angeles. “Garry Winogrand and some of his friends tried to talk [gallery director] Renato Danese out of showing my work, saying I was going to ruin photography,” she said, recalling encounters with the prominent photographer who documented the social landscape with a witty if jaundiced eye and died in 1982.

“I liked Garry on a human level; we just simply totally disagreed on art,” Rankaitis said. “My sensibility was foreign to a lot of male photographers in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They thought that working on a large scale, abstractly, making all these references to things like Chinese painting, was the worst thing that could possibly happen. I was contaminating photography. But now it’s nothing. My students look at what I do and probably think, ‘What’s the big deal?’ ”

Yet, even now that photography has permeated contemporary art and hybrid art forms have proliferated, the upcoming exhibition is a big deal for Rankaitis. Including 21 major pieces, it’s her largest solo show to date. What’s more, the focus on her science-based work may finally free the artist from her best-known subject matter of the early 1980s--airplanes.

“I relate so much to William Wegman, because no matter what he tries to do--and he did some pretty interesting paintings--everyone wants his Man Ray photographs,” Rankaitis said of the artist known for droll pictures of his dog. “For a while everyone called me the airplane artist, and people still want my work that has airplanes in it. This show is essentially my work about science and technology--sort of post-airplane.”

One group of works comes from her “Complexity Theory Series,” created in 1997-98. “I became fascinated with complexity theory, which is almost impossible to explain, other than that it comes out of chaos theory and it’s about all sorts of patterns and coincidences that, on some level, are self-organizing,” she said.

“The idea of things that operate in parallel ways and at times come together, and are rerouted and reorganized, really interests me,” said the artist, who delved into theories of social science, the stock market and the collapse of the Soviet Union to do the series.

But that doesn’t mean she considers herself an expert. “Nancy Perloff said a long time ago that I always do work about things I don’t understand, trying to understand it. And it’s true,” Rankaitis said of an art historian who has written about her work.

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Born in Cambridge, Mass., and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Rankaitis has always been interested in science. As a high school student, she devised experiments on her own--including one that involved growing hundreds of molds in the basement of her family’s house, for which she won a prize at a science fair. If she were starting over, Rankaitis said, she would probably have a double major, in science and art. Instead, she focused on art, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting at the University of Illinois in 1971 and a master of fine arts in painting and photography at USC in 1977.

“When I was studying art in college, I always thought Georgia O’Keeffe was a great model,” Rankaitis said. “Here was a career--as opposed to something like dance--where one could have a really long life and continue to be productive. . . . But if you are in the arts, at some point in time, no matter what, people aren’t going to be interested in what you are doing. So you take advantage of opportunities.”

She loved being affiliated with the Ruth Bloom Gallery in Santa Monica in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “But when the gallery closed, in a strange way, it was sort of freeing,” she said. “With any gallery, there is real pressure to produce. Without it, I had a chance to look at things in a more open-ended way and do a lot of reading.”

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Still, there are never enough spaces for artists to show their work and it’s extremely difficult to make a living without holding down another job, she said. In her case, it’s teaching art at Scripps College in Claremont. She feels lucky to have a job where “the students get smarter every year, are eager to learn and always come to class,” but teaching inevitably takes time that she would like to devote to her own art, she said. “I do so few works compared to most artists because I work on some of them for a couple of years. If I have a year in which I get a dozen things done, it feels incredibly prolific.”

One consolation is that her teaching and research occasionally coincide. “I’m going to teach a seminar in the fall called Visualizing Science in the Landscape,” Rankaitis said. “It filled up immediately with half senior engineering majors at Harvey Mudd College and half Scripps art and science majors. There seems to be a whole new field in the art-and-science thing.”

She’s also looking forward to a trip to China in December and January, thanks to a Durfee Foundation American/Chinese Adventure Grant. “I’m going to walk the landscape of the Sung Dynasty painters,” she said. “I’ve always loved Sung Dynasty painting, especially the winter paintings. I just want to take in the landscape that those painters looked at 1,000 years ago. That work has really influenced me conceptually as well as physically. They would sit in the landscape and look at it and then come back to their studios. They were the literati painters, the painters who also did calligraphy and wrote poetry and were scholars. The whole idea of the artist as a many-faceted thinker has a strong appeal for me, so I’m thrilled to be going.”

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“Susan Rankaitis: Drawn From Science,” Museum of Photographic Arts, Balboa Park, San Diego. Next Sunday to Aug. 13. Every day, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: adults, $6; seniors and students, $5; children under 12, free. Free, second Tuesday of the month. The artist will talk about her work next Sunday, 1 p.m. (619) 238-7559.


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