I could feel the energy, the life force, the sheer sense of fun radiating from the collection of commissioned fashion, advertising and editorial images gathered in the imaginatively titled TuuliTastic: A Photographic Love Letter, Rankin's sixteenth book; or maybe the seventeenth - he's too busy to keep count – and his first new volume for four years.
The show at The Gallery in London's Charing Cross Road opened on 8 November with the sort of celebrity launch we have come to expect from Rankin and was the first of a series of collaborations with the gallery that will run to the spring.
TuuliTastic is Rankin's 128 page love letter to Tuuli, his favourite model, in shots taken over a period of three years, her image repeated on a sparkling white space stretching over two floors and, as I wandered around the walls of one and up the narrow stairs to the next level, another thing that struck me was that at art gatherings people tend to look as if they are at some terribly serious event, like Wimbledon, or the reading of a will, but the aficionados at The Gallery were dancing around with their glasses of wine with the same merry spirit as Tuuli in the photographs.
We find Tuuli as a live Jackson Pollock, her body a drip canvas splattered from head to toe in multi-coloured paint. There's Tuuli in violet knickers and white heels sucking on a popsicle held by an unseen man. What turns the cliché on its head is her expression: this is the face of a graduation photo, of a wedding day, less phallic than jubilant.
The work is a tease, the gradual emergence of a Tuuli stripped bare a step at a time through a series of boxes reminds us of Duchamp's Nude Descending the Staircase. The model nude in another sequence takes the concept a step further – Nude Descending to Nakedness? We find Tuuli made up as a clown with pink cheeks and big lips and Tuuli decorated in hundreds of thousands, those sweet coloured balls of candy you sprinkle over fairy cakes, only here they are sprinkled in a heart over her pubic mount. A sweet temptation if every there was one.
In TuuliTastic there is a nod to bondage. Tuuli nude on horseback reminds us of the equestrian fantasy. But beyond the humour, Rankin is questioning the very perception of beauty. He takes this Scarlett Johansson look-alike, dresses her in an elegant gown as if for a Vogue shoot and gives her a set of child's crooked play teeth. He changes the exquisite into the surreal and the result is both startling and compelling. Girls who take off their clothes for artists have to be comfortable with their nudity, but from this collection you come away with the distinct impression that for Tuuli at least being naked is fun in itself.
I shared a beer with a slimmed-down Rankin looking ten years younger than when I last saw him. He exchanged a few words with Lily Cole, who loomed over us with her flaming curls like a warrior queen from a Viking Legend, and I got the feeling as I set off for a second look at the show with film director Don Boyd that Rankin with TuuliTastic was staking his claim as top dog in British photography. His old mate Damien Hirst obviously thinks so. He came early, bought 20 prints and vanished before the rush.