Rackstraw Downes’s Presidio: In the Sand Hills Looking West with ATV Tracks & Cell Tower (2012) is a long painting: an expansive, panoramic view of sand hills in a small city in Texas. In the foreground, ATV tracks are dark brown, suggesting movement and shadow. There are two prominent hills creating a droopy, curvy “M.” Between these two hills, the downward slope frames a cluster of houses. Mint green and hot orange, these structures communicate to the viewer that they are very far away. When I move in for a closer look, they become mere dots and dashes. Maybe because there’s so much pale-peach yellow in the foreground, I’m more aware of the blue sky at the upper sections of the canvas; its blueness diminishes as it approaches the horizon. But I am drawn back to the mint green and hot orange and the rugged texture of the hill tops.
Like the other fifteen paintings at Downes’s fourth solo show at Betty Cuningham Gallery, Presidio is longer than it is tall. Because of these dimensions, my body moves as I look: left to right, right to left, backward to see the whole, forward, closer to the painting, to see the meticulous brushwork and the detailed arrangement of shapes.
My eyes move across the surface, too, and between various experiences. My awareness shifts from the image, from the landscape being represented, to the oil paint itself. In an Art21 episode, Downes describes being fixated on the “curlicues” of the ATV tracks: he’s interested in the appearance of tire prints in the sand, but also with how the paint is laid down and arranged with other marks. Imagining the relationship of the parts to the whole and the whole to the parts is at the heart of painting, especially in the way Downes creates images. How does a mark fit in with another to create a whole system of marks that can be read as a unified whole—as a hill, as a sky, as mountains in the distance, as an entire environment?
Downes’s brush marks are subtle and deliberate. Sometimes, they are thick and the viewer becomes aware of the accumulation of paint. I can feel the careful attention he gives to these hills. Plein-air painting for him must be a kind of meditation. In turn, the painting asks time from the viewer, a close engagement.
Presidio, Texas is not the only site that Downes paints. He is a traveler. Over time, he has painted different parts of Maine and New Jersey; since the 1960s he has been painting New York City. At the current show, he seems to move between NYC and Texas, from 2009 to 2012. Painting and drawing at each site, he tries to achieve what he describes as “extreme clarity.” That quality is what I react to at first sight. I think about photography. But these paintings aren’t like photographs, which might be an obvious statement but I think it’s a distinction worth making. Downes isn’t interested in photographic realism; he’s invested in translating his observation of environment with a very unruly substance—oil paint. He seems to make decisions like an abstract painter, placing marks down and seeing where they take him. When I look at his landscapes, questions about process come up: What does he paint first? What kinds of brushes does he use? When is the painting finished? Visible staples in some canvases suggest that he wanted to include more of the landscape than what he initially set out to paint. Traces of a grid hint at how Downes organizes information. Experiencing such a physical and formal imagining of cities in two dimensions causes me to reconsider my relationship to my own environment. In front of Downes’s New York City paintings I see familiar structures and spaces anew. The underbelly of the overpass in Sand, Gravel and Mulch: NYC Parks Dept. Facility at 155th Street, for instance, is a rich avocado green, and the tall buildings at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge in Delancey and Suffolk are not just brown; they are also full of a deep, earthy red. The city slows down—I slow down in these paintings, in awe of Downes’s patience and technique.
(Image on top: Rackstraw Downes, Below the Hospital Complex at 168th Street, 2012, Oil on canvas, 11 x 23 inches /27.9 x 58.4 cm; Courtesy the artist and Betty Cunningham Gallery.)