Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Rackstraw Downes' Urban Rooms and Desert Landscapes

Rackstraw Downes at Betty Cunningham. Link here: Gallery Link

As always the case in Downes, drawings ground the painting. In the Conceptualization of Realism (Edgewise Press)  Downes writes, "I draw, not to establish anything, but to gain an acquaintance with a place." The top / ground floor at Cunningham features New York landscapes while downstairs desert landscapes. Making the loop, the two intersperse and one becomes immersed in the experience of two places, one tamed, but where wildness originates, and the other, so-called wildness that shows every sign of settlement. 

Sketchbook excerpts: time of day. The chosen time is below.

When I moved from LA to Chicago to attend SAIC for my MFA, I studied with Susanna Coffey, whose portraits share with Downes a nimble brush and close observation. How I yearned to paint this way! If only I looked at the Art Institute's Manets long enough, would it be possible?! But in the way Downes loves American primitive paintings but does not make them, so too do I love Coffey's and his works--and cannot make them! How can this surface be absolutely covered, yet remain so interesting? How can oil still breathe with life? 
Downes writes, "One painting may involve as many as 100 visits...I am interested in the whole place and everything that pertains to it: the long canvases I use result from wanting to get all that in."

In his 1996 book The Abstract Wild, Jack Turner observes only 2% of the US might be wild. These paintings confirm it. 

Downes writes, "Through the metaphor of travel everything comes alive. Except that the traveler's picture is half a picture: he is euphoric on exotica and the novelty of it all." ...To be continued below.
Seen for real, the intense blue shadows shock the eye from the expected neutral tones of this juniper field.

In passages such as these, Downes must experience a melding with landscape. 
He continues, "This may be OK for a romantic; but the realist needs to know his subject like a resident too. The traveler sees that farmland is pretty; this doesn't concern the farmer at all, even if he had time to notice it. He's preoccupied with the fact that his topsoil is poor or his heifers got out. It's a common rift in experience; what we're outside of we don't really understand, what we're inside of we can't really see."
He goes on to quote Su Shih (1084):
"From the side, a whole range;
from the end, a single peak:
Far, near, high, low, no two parts alike.
Why can't I tell the true shape of Lu-Shan?
Because I myself am in the mountain." (p. 123)

In the office.

Also in the office: ochre 'clouds' disclose an underlying grid Downes uses to establish proportion.

Sky moves around branch as branch shapes sky.