Betty Cuningham Gallery:  Rackstraw Downes, Oct 11 - Dec 22, 2012                                       back
Under an Off-Ramp from the
George Washington Bridge

oil on canvas
26 x 56 inches

Art is artifice, and the paintings of Rackstraw Downes are no exception. But they do present a unique form of artifice. Neither Photorealist nor traditional, his landscapes and cityscapes occupy a realm curiously in-between.

Currently on view at Betty Cuningham, seventeen recent paintings by the artist reflect his familiar blend of the intuitive and the systematic. With these works Downes continues to seek out the spatial dramas of Texan sand hills and New York City bridges and overpasses. Famously working on site for the duration of each painting, he records, down to the last detail, the natural violence of a receding road’s diagonal, or the soaring arc of an overpass. (And the violence is natural, to the extent that it’s what a camera would record, if fitted with the fish-eye lens necessary to encompass these wide-angle views.)

The result is a view of nature that seems at once luminously proximate and rigorously apart. In “Under an Off-Ramp from the George Washington Bridge” (2011), the sweeping concrete forms of overhead highways and underfoot pathways practically knot before our eyes; between their massive columns, one can trace, up close, fine streams of dripping water. The great dish of cement dominating the center of “Outdoor Dance Floor, Presidio, TX, from the Bandstand Looking South” (2009) spins off, in centrifugal manner, a rim of spindly trees and squat buildings.

This is not the method of Photorealists such as Richard Estes or Robert Cottingham, who seem more content with flat patterns and paradoxes of illumination. And if we think of the process of a photographer as concentrating on an initial selection, and then fleshing out through largely predetermined means, then Downes shows a more hands-on touch. Seams in some paintings reveal the artist extended them on the top or sides. In “Traffic Under the George Washington Bridge” (2010) one can dimly make out the ghost impression of a painted-over car. 

Perhaps his biggest departure from Photorealism, though, is his more active color, which, especially in smaller portions of paintings, lends tangible weight to the force of sunlight. In “Delancey and Suffolk” (2012), for instance, pale reddish-browns line up alongside burnt siennas, and we experience, viscerally, brick buildings rising into the light. “Duarte Square“ (2009) goes a step further. Here, trees assert themselves through an inexplicable relationship of greens: yellowish greens (sunlit) wrap over deeper, absorptive greens (shadowed) to create a palpable sense of tree canopies in sunlight. And, with three such trees lifting from a staggered purple-mauves (their cast shadows), Downes engages the ground plane in a contrapuntal march across the canvas.

But if these paintings go beyond the pattern-making of Photorealism, they also steer clear of the comprehensive composing of Claude Lorrain or Corot. Downes’ approach dramatically frames a physical, three-dimensional event, and then transposes it precisely to two dimensions. Standing in front of one of his canvases, we have the visceral sensation of craning our necks as we trace the arc of a bridge from one edge to the other. (A legacy of Abstract-Expressionism, and its all-over, enveloping space?) It’s a different concept of spatial drama from what one finds in traditional landscapes, in which formal events begin and end within the rectangular arabesque of the canvas: a shape of some sort launches an arc, and another receives it, and in the hands of a master, it becomes, momentously, a particular bridge. Color assumes a new, crucial role, no longer simply describing light and depth, but also qualifying each interval: this large, buoyant mass gives way abruptly to this small, dense one. In other words, colors push drawing, and vice versa. It makes for a different kind of concision, and another degree of artifice, and Corot enthusiasts may find the contrapuntal rhythms in his "The Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome” (c. 1835-40) more purposeful than those in “Duarte Square.” 

From this standpoint, Downes imparts to his color enough vigor to give weight to light, but not enough to leverage the strategy of his drawing. One senses this in “Sand, Gravel and Mulch: NYC Parks Dept. Facility at 155th Street” (2011), in which a pillar, rooted compellingly in the foreground by its own dense green-gray, receives no response of color from a broad series of arches beyond, delineated by the drawing but not weighted in hue. Similarly, in terms of color pressures, the centrifugal force in “Outdoor Dance Floor” remains more conceptual than tangible.

At other times, though, the artist’s inventions of drawing and color combine wondrously. In some paintings here, color not only supports drawing but propels it. The subject of “Presidio: In the Sand Hills Looking East with ATV Tracks & Cell Tower” (2012) may seem austere, but its restraint of drawing allows each element to develop uniquely. Downes sets the table with a bold, preliminary division of the horizontal canvas, with limpid, vacant blues placed above a tall ridge of subtly glowing ochre-grays.  An assortment of gullies and ATV tracks coil and weave across the lower portion, measuring out its width and height, bringing the impression of earthiness to a peak before tipping into the sky. Near the cresting point of one arc of tracks, a distant water tower appears, a pillar of warm off-white: tiny, pale, remote, but resolute in the tan-colored tide. It’s all artifice, but the inventions of drawing and color cohere as a unique version of the real—­a singular poetic truth, if you like, as real as any two dimensional record could be. And for good measure, there’s another compelling painting alongside this one—­same format, similar subject—­re-creating a wholly different truth out of hills and sky.

Betty Cuningham Gallery
541 West 25th Street,, New York NY 10001
212-242-2772 · www.bettycuninghamgallery.com