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Friday, January 17, 2014

Rackstraw Downes

A Concrete Ditch with Sewer Main, Spring, Texas City, 1997, Rackstraw Downes

photo by Nina Subin
Rackstraw Downes in plain
(apparently rather cold) air.
You think all "plein air" painters set up their easels next to quiet, picturesque, babbling brooks, among flowing flowers and shady, arboreal delights to create Impressionistic, painterly images rife with delicate brushstrokes and nuanced color that would make Claude Monet turn pthalocyanine green with envy, right? WRONG! You've obviously never seen the work of Rackstraw (that's his real name, really) Downes. Downes is a plain-air painter (that is, he paints only "on location") but that's about where his relationship with the traditional stereotype of such artists begins and ends. Can you imagine Claude Monet climbing into an attic to paint the ductwork? Can you picture Renoir painting a concrete, arrow-straight drainage ditch in the middle a small Texas town (top)? How about Pissarro painting the underside of the George Washington Bridge? Ken Johnson, a New York Times art critic, sums up Downes: "(He) paints beautiful pictures of ugly places."

Snug Harbor, Metal Duct Work in G Attic, Part 2, 2001, Rackstraw Downes,
(the second in a series of four related works).
Demolition and Excavation on the Site of the Equitable
Life Assurances Society’s New Tower at 7th Avenue
and 52nd Street, 1983, Rackstraw Downes
Rodney Harry Rackstraw Downes, was born in Kent, England, in 1939. He began studying painting in the U.S. during the late 1950s before returning to England for a B.A. in English Literature. Then it was back across the Atlantic for his M.F.A. in painting from Yale. Inasmuch as Downes came of age as a painter during the waning years of Abstract Expressionism amid the hotbed of such art, one might expect Downes to be a lingering practitioner of the style. In fact he was, though he was smart enough not to linger past the mid-1960s, at which time he embraced a realist, one might even say photorealist style (without the photo) of painting in the "plain air." Living in New York City, Downes also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Parsons School of Design, and later, at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Under an Off Ramp of the George Washington Bridge, 2009, Rackstraw Downes
Downes' work is often compared to that of the Photorealist, Richard Estes; and stylistically, there are some similarities. But Estes work is inevitably quite attractive, at least in a cold, raw, urban sense. Estes paints at "street level," and of course, from his own photos in a cozy studio. Downes, as seen in his demolition site painting (above, right) more often paints the urban landscape from a perspective well above street level, or in the case of his Under an Off Ramp of the George Washington Bridge (above), well below it. In fact Downes may be one of the few artists to deliberately allow for the distortion of traditional perspective not unlike that which extremely wide-angle photos produce. In case you haven't noticed, Downes seldom paints outside a horizontal (usually quite broadly horizontal) format, allowing the inherent distortions of perspective to become an integral, fascinating part of the compositional design (as seen below).

The Pulaski Skyway Crossing the Hackensack River, 2007, Rackstraw Downes
There is seldom any attempt to "beautify." More often than not, Downes is more concerned with composition, structure, repetition of forms, and unique perspectives which go unnoticed or unimagined by most painters. His Untenanted Space in the World Trade Center—Winter Sun (below), from 1998, had an eerie emptiness when Downes completed it. Today we find this emptiness bound up in a tragic eeriness unimagined, even unimaginable, by its creator less than four years before 9-11.

Untenanted Space in the World Trade Center—Winter Sun , 1998, Rackstraw, Downes


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