On ViewBetty Cunningham Gallery
January 27–March 19, 2022
There are two Rackstraw Downes in this remarkable show of 33 drawings and one oil on canvas. The range is huge, from 1975 until 2020, but with the bulk of the drawings made in 2020. Not exactly a retrospective, but enough of one for us to see two discrete phases in his career: his mature style and his late style. First, Rackstraw Downes commenting on his modus operandi in 1996:
My paintings are executed from start to finish on site in the landscape and take months. When you work outdoors, you surrender a lot of control over your subject and that is what I like about it, the interactive, experiential character of it. It is the opposite of starting with a clear-cut idea and projecting that into the work. You learn about the site as you proceed; no matter what thoughts or opinions I may have about what is there when I begin, what comes to concern me as I work are the things themselves, not any sense I make of them.
The process was painstaking and arduous. In those days, Downes would make both pencil and oil sketches, in effect seeking to catch what he knew to be ephemeral. There is a vast difference between landscape as conceived, say, by Corot and what Downes understands by the idea. Where Corot guides our eye with repoussoirs and red dots, so we can appreciate his domination of perspective, Downes wants us to see nature as a part of the human habitat, not a utopia. Again in 1996, he said,
I was born and raised in England and I think this has something to do with my attitude toward landscape. I don't have what I perceive as a New World sense of an antithesis between unspoiled nature and human culture: a landscape to me is a place where people live and work. There really was no wild nature in the South of England where I grew up and in Europe, as George Orwell said, "Every step you take you're probably treading on ten dead people."
We see both his aesthetic and his attitude toward nature in Hudson River Sewage Treatment Plant Under Construction (1996). Can there be any subject more antithetical to traditional landscape painting than a sewage treatment plant? This is not Turner painting a train piercing the fog and rain in a glorious haze, but life in progress, a new interpretation of both realism and reality. The same applies to the stark vision Downes captures in Presidio Cell Tower (2005), where a barren nature supplies the setting for a Giacometti-like, skeletal tower Downes casually consigns to the viewer’s left.
When we reach 2020, we realize that Downes himself is subject to the same mutations he sought to capture in the fluctuating world of his drawings and painting. Confined first to a wheelchair and second to the east-west rectangle of his Soho studio-loft, Downes has had—literally—to change his perspective. These drawings chronicle Downes’s move from the macrocosm to the microcosm, simultaneously evoking Xavier de Maistre’s 1790 masterpiece Voyage Around My Room, where the author parodies the vagaries of travel literature by taking a step-by-step hike around his bedroom and Daniel Spoerri’s 1962 An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, a Fluxus “tour-de-farce” that catalogues each object in room number 13 in the Parisian Hotel Carcassonne.
What those authors do in words, Downes does in graphite on paper. To begin, the matter of windows: Downes uses the windows on the west and east ends of his loft as light sources, but never draws what he might see from those windows. So, we move with Downes, east and west, viewing this reduced world from his seated point of view. In In the Artist’s Studio VII (2020), graphite on blue paper with blue threads, we are on the west side: against the windows, a settee flanked by armchairs. We are several meters from the windows, so our view includes a table set perpendicular to the south wall and a sort of stand on the right side, Downes’s version of Corot’s repoussoirs. Our eyes are guided, not into a vanishing point on the horizon but into the geometry of planes and curves created by domestic furniture.
Just as he thought nothing of drawing the sewage treatment plant in progress, Downes does not hesitate to show us, in In the Artist’s Studio XV (2020), his bed, his overflowing armoire, and—of course—his walker. Just as Cézanne (whose drawings Downes admires) thought fit to paint the potbellied stove in his studio, Downes gives us a slice of his life, not in the fine-line style of his earlier work but in a smudged, gestural graphite that catches the instant of artistic perception. Objects as banal as a pair of chairs—In the Artist’s Studio XII (2020)—taken out of context and thus rendered abstract express the mystery of Downes’s selection and depiction process. We’re all invited into his world, and what we find there is utterly fascinating: the familiar transformed into art.