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Artist Captures What’s There and What’s Not

Posted on 24 June 2010

web 110th and Broadway, Whelanís from Sloanís, 1980ñ81

By Vee Benard

Rackstraw Downes, the British-born, American-based, Yale-educated artist creates paintings that both celebrate and transcend notions of time and space. Downes’ unique oil panoramas of unlikely urban scenes as well as wide open rural vistas are curious depictions of static “moments” in American landscape, as though machinery of the scene has ground to a quiet halt.

The paintings are as notable for what is depicted as for what has been left out. They seem evacuated—if not of people, then of purpose—that is, of apparent purpose. The end result of Downes’ beautiful work is a kind of layering that simultaneously suggests present and past, new and old, familiar and strange, here and gone.

Terrie Sultan, director of the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton — where a collection  of Downes’ paintings are currently on exhibit —  considers the Parrish to be the perfect place to showcase the artist’s work, and first thought of his work for an exhibit here when she assumed leadership of the museum two years ago. She says she recognized the “real intellectual association to be made here.”

According to Sultan, Downes creates “images [that] are so amazing they stuck in my head in a way [that] they wouldn’t let go.”

After much time and effort, this union has been achieved — this first-ever retrospective exhibition of Downes’ work, is on view through the end of the summer at the Parrish. This past weekend at the opening of the show, “Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008” Downes and curator Klaus Ottman led a guided tour of the exhibition, followed by a discussion which included Sultan.

Downes began his training at Yale University, studying under abstract painter Al Held. He soon departed from abstraction, however, explaining that he “got stuck and had to do something about it.”

He then went to Maine to work through this frustration.

“I expected to go up to Maine to do abstractions, but what I found myself doing was going outside twice a day to draw,” explains Downes.

He adds that the most difficult part of the transition from abstraction to realism, and also the development of his distinctive technique, was loosening his style.

“I needed to teach my hand to tremble. It needed to tremble to create a shimmer around the edges of my subjects,” says Downes.

These exacting works seem hyper-realistic at first, silent and still, until the viewer notices some expressive irregularity, like an expressive undulation in the horizon line. And, indeed, it is the manner in which Downes bridges realism and expressionism that makes his work so indelible.

The paintings exhibited at the Parrish were all created onsite and en plein air, and they range from tiny detail depictions of the Texas landscape to vast panoramas of landfills, lumber yards, and New York City street corners. Downes’ technique yields imagery reminiscent of photography—and yet he admits to neither using photographs as a basis for his work nor even owning a camera.

Instead, upon finding a site, Downes will return to it day after day until the painting is completed, often working on several pieces at a time. For scenes involving human subjects, Downes will hire actors and models to pose while he works, painting one subject at a time.

“That man,” Downes said, pointing at one of the pedestrians in his cityscape “110th and Broadway, Whelan’s from Sloan’s,” “must have mailed his letter at least 40 times … I had him pack a change of clothes.”

Recipient of the 2009 MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, Downes presents us with a conceptual view of the world that veritably goes beyond the limits of both painting and photography, the intrinsic nature of his brushstrokes instilling both history and agency into often overlooked subjects.

Downes describes himself as a realist, primarily interested in “the man-made or the man-modified.”

“There is a social story going on in those paintings of mine,” he says, “one that I have great interest in.”

Downes’ paintings feature nontraditional subjects, especially for the realm of landscape painting. From oil fields to scrap metal processing plants, Downes chooses to depict not what we expect to see, but rather what he feels we need to see.

“Oftentimes people ask me why I choose to paint such banal things, garbage dumps and manufacturing plants,” says Downes. “I say how can you not? We all contribute.”

The social commentary so present in Downes’ paintings reminds us of our presence and effect on our world.

“Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008” will be on view through August 8 at the Parrish Art Museum, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton. A special lecture, “Turning the Head in Empirical Space,” will be held at the museum on Saturday, July 17 at 6 p.m. A screening of the film “It Don’t Pay to be an Honest Citizen,” in which Downes appears, will be offered on Friday July 16 at 8 p.m. For more information call 283-2118 or visit

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