RACKSTRAW DOWNES: Onsite Paintings, 19722008by Ben La Rocco
Parrish Art Museum
June 20 – August 8, 2010
If religion died in the 19th century and became art, then there is no better place to see art than in a church. Though the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton was never a church, the design sure resembles one. Exhibitions are accessed through a would-be nave, and circumambulated via what resemble a crossing and transepts. Despite this, the Parrish seems a less presumptuous place to exhibit art than many contemporary galleries. In fact, it is rather homey. Its form frames Rackstraw Downes’s exhibition, Onsite Paintings, 1972–2008, well, not because of any religiosity in Downes’s paintings, but, I believe, for his self-sacrificing work ethic and love for things in the world as they are. These qualities are the finest I can associate with religious practice of any kind.
Perhaps this is not the best way to start. Mentioning religion gives a mystical impression that would misrepresent Downes’s work. Rackstraw Downes is a painter of the American landscape and that tradition is fraught with mysticism and romanticism, so it seems important to point out that Downes is English. Though he may have spent his working life in America, he is a native of the same country that produced post-war artists Stanley Spencer, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud and, more recently, the YBA, all about as earthy as you can get. True, England also produced Turner, but Downes has nothing to do with him. If this does not dispel lingering thoughts of the Hudson River School, perhaps a discussion of razor wire and chain link will do the trick.
“Four Spots along a Razor-Wire Fence, August–November (ASOTSPRIE)” (1999), is a series of four oil paintings depicting four locations along a single (one presumes) razor-wire fence. As any urbanite knows, a razor-wire fence is a chain-link fence with long strands of flat, heavy gauge, aluminum wire curling slinky-like along the top and sporting double-edged, pointed razor blades. Though I do like climbing, I never tried to scale one. They are cruel-looking things that make me wonder what our world is coming to: I’ve even seen churches sport them. In Downes’s non-judgmental eyes, however, they are an elastic play of light and line. They are the primary, animating element, the reason, I suppose, these four paintings got made at all. Compositionally, the paintings break into three categories: that which lies behind the fence, that which lies outside the fence, and that which exists above the fence. The first of the three categories is the broadest, containing elevated subway lines, buildings, more razor wire, and snatches of cement, trees, scrub, and sky. Downes groups these objects by blending them with the mesh of the metal fence, painting all into a curving mass defined by the fence’s upper and lower boundaries and the metal-gray hue affecting all their coloring. Thus he generates categories two (outside), and three (above), the former consisting mostly of sidewalk, and the latter of sky as foil for the razor-wire.
Why make realist painting when you have photography? It’s such a philistine’s question that I almost don’t want to bring it up. But Downes’s paintings are so much about how paint relates to the eye, that I feel compelled. Downes’s use of paint to encourage like elements to coalesce into one single mass mirrors vision’s perceptual finesse. Have you ever wondered how the sight of a singular object or set of related objects can sometimes detach itself from the visual field and captivate with its beauty or strangeness? Why does the eye focus in this way and can aesthetics determine how we see: a supposedly relativistic, taste-based occurrence determining a physical response? Paint, as Downes employs it here, exhibits its unique capacity to evoke the interconnectedness of eye, mind, and body. Pragmatism, far more than romanticism or mysticism, underlies Downes’s perpetual interrogation of his surroundings. These are basic questions he is asking, having to do with the nature of human experience—what it can and can’t contain. I think this has something to do with being English again. Pragmatism and empiricism have always seemed like kissing cousins to me anyway. Painters such as Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, and Jane Freilicher, with whom Downes otherwise shares many affinities, don’t get anywhere near the inherently messy experiments with physiology and perception of the kind Downes undertakes. He seems deeply preoccupied with the senses’ limits, the point at which they fail us in comprehending the world and beyond which philosophy and physics tend to falter.
Downes is a peculiarly contemporary artist, a student of Minimalist aesthetics, and a hard act to follow. Travel across and look in on arts festivals and small-town galleries and I’ll bet you’ll find more painters in the Downes school than any other contemporary artist. But most of it will disappoint. “Garbage Arriving in Barges at Fresh Kills is Hauled to the Top of the Landfill in Athey Wagons” (1990) is about a foot and a half tall by ten feet long. It is a panoramic painting, a mode straight out of the American landscape tradition. In terms of attention to detail, the painting rivals Thomas Cole (though maybe not Frederic Church), but it eschews the Hudson River School’s use of glazes to create luminous effects and the messianic undertones they helped create. Instead the paint is opaque, often thick, asserting itself as a thing like the things it depicts. Clement Greenberg might have approved Downes’s use of paint, though I doubt he would have endorsed the project as a whole. If you stand in the right place relative to the viewpoint of “Garbage Arriving” you get a funny jolt, like the world is sliding off its axis. I experience it as a kind of vague nausea tinged with excitement. I wonder what Frederic Church would have thought of experiencing nausea in front of a painting. This is due to the bending and compression of space that Downes employs in order to pack in so much information. Jerry Saltz called it the “fisheye” effect and did not approve of it. Ross Neher called it the kinesthetic effect and he did. Eakins is the only other painter to make me feel nauseated in a good way, another hard act to follow.
“I am needed by things as the sky must be above the earth. And lately so great has their anxiety become, I can spare myself little sleep,” wrote Frank O’Hara in Meditations In An Emegency. I have seen Rackstraw Downes in the streets of New York lugging his gear on his back, bent by its weight as he exited the subway, long hair trailing with the wild look of a vagrant. The amount of work that goes into his paintings is humbling. There is a necessity to them that makes it almost impossible to imagine that they were once no more than a vague idea in a man’s mind, a twitch of a nerve. They seem rather always to have been there, like the places they represent, which of course weren’t either. This work, bringing these images forth, strikes me as a kind of stewardship. A steward is a servant who cares for the property of another and Jasper Johns, elite among painters, is know to have called artists the elite of the servant classes.
Downes is invested in the way white paint looks in the sun; or how cross-hatched beams support a roof; or the way a heavy, unused, telephone pole vanishes behind corrugated aluminum siding, which in turn bleeds into sky; or the way a building (the motel where the artist stayed while he worked?) sits in the middle distance, the only shelter for miles around; or the feeling for the day’s changing light and the scrub on the mesa. His responsibility is to tell us of these faraway things that we ourselves will likely never see, to describe them faithfully from a singular point of view in so far as that is possible. Looking at Downes’s report of what he saw along the Rio Grande (2008), three paintings of the same farm buildings under the sun’s searing light in a contested land, the possibilities seem endless. Despite the sensual information amassed—an exhaustive study of an unidentified spot along a geographic interstice—there are so many more things to see here. What didn’t Downes paint? Wondering, the eye drifts up beyond the painting’s frame to note the texture of the parish wall.