While Rackstraw Downes is commonly thought of as a pleine air painter due primarily to the manner in which he works, his paintings reflect anything but a conventional expression of working outdoors and onsite.
Traditionally, pleine air painting has manifested itself as an artist’s attempt at an interpretation of reality, an effort to construe a setting rather than produce a literal recreation of it, working quickly to capture the transitory effects of luminosity and environment while simplifying the forms, light, and color of a given scene. Often idealizing nature despite working directly from life, most pleine air artists strive to capture what the painter Robert Genn has called as “the odd charm of imprecision.”
This cannot be said of Rackstraw Downes, an artist whom the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl once described as “a realist esteemed by people who normally have scant use for realism in art” and who is currently being featured in an exhibition at the Parrish Museum in Southampton.
Titled “Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings 1972-2008”, the exhibit highlights and underscores the unique manner the artist is able to present a matter-of-fact view of reality without ever becoming distantly academic or impersonally detached. Working for years to complete a single painting, one can sense connections tying the works to disciplines such as Impressionism or the Hudson River school except completely absent the latent sense of romanticism or sentimentality associated with those styles of painting.
Instead, Downes rejects picturesque observations characteristic of much realist work and focus’ his attention on images usually dismissed for an understandable lack of customary aesthetic appeal such as dumps, culverts, scrubland, and landfills. These marginal spaces in nature are presented in a distinctly painterly manner but are also imbued with an air of specificity usually associated with photo-realist approaches that makes the works singularly arresting. Delineating the intersection between man-made objects and the natural world, the artist emphasizes a merged progression of visual observations that fosters an understated sense of organic theatricality while seemingly eschewing dramatics in its more traditional forms, essentially emphasizing the mundane aspects of modern existence and rejecting an idealized view of the environment or humankind’s place in it.
As a result, Downes conjures tableaus that strive to avoid any measure of editorializing or sermonizing, seeking to neither romanticize the imagery nor critique it. Rather, the paintings become existential reveries that substitute observation for judgment and allow the narrative to evolve through the works’ immensity of scope and specificity of detail.
This is especially notable in his series of panorama paintings which offer a visual compression of time and events that places the viewer seemingly outside the scene yet, contradictorily, also peripherally involved in it as well. At the same time, the actual physical structure of the works themselves as panoramics excludes a sense of intimacy which, as the artist himself stated, “precludes intimate focus.”
Interestingly, this same use of perspective in other paintings, such as “Snug Harbor Metal Ductwork in G Attic” (2001) or “Four Spots Along a Razor-Wire Fence August-November” (1999), manages to create a wholly more immediate sense of intimacy on the part of the viewer. In both the previous works and these, this is influenced and guided by the artist’s elongated compositional framework and his complex system of perspective in which the lines delineating the horizon bend as if replicating the curve of the earth. This creates an effect reminiscent of a ‘fish-eye’ perspective which Downes once wrote about as recreating the experience of turning your head to take in an entire vista.
The exhibition at the Parrish Museum in Southampton titled “Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings 1972-2008” continues through August 8.