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The Radical Possibility of Seeing What Is Front of You

All of Rackstraw Downes’s work derives from the simple, everyday act of observing your surroundings.

Rackstraw Downes, “George Washington Bridge Exit Ramp Over Riverside Drive, NYC” (2015), oil on linen, 20 1/4 x 19 5/8 inches (all images courtesy Betty Cunningham Gallery)

I want to start from one end of the spectrum and move to the other, from the perfect copy to the complete translation. In an interview with Jennifer Samet that appeared in Hyperallergic Weekend on October 4, 2012, Rackstraw Downes stated:

Yes, painting is a metaphor. You cannot represent a three-dimensional world in two dimensions without metaphor, unless you’re a sculptor like Duane Hanson. That is a total re-creation. It doesn’t live or breathe, but in every other aspect, it is a total re-creation. That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do.

Hanson’s hyperrealist sculptures of people occupy that zone of seeing where you are momentarily fooled into thinking the meticulous copy is the real thing, a helmeted construction worker enjoying a cigarette during his coffee break. With his work, your aesthetic experience amounts to an assessment. How close does the copy resemble the real thing? Assessing the value of something — be it a house or a person — is practically an American pastime.

The question of resemblance doesn’t come up when you are looking at a painting by Rackstraw Downes of a subject as mundane as two pedestrian bridges crossing Riverside Drive, connecting two buildings of a hospital complex. With his work, there is no question that the original is lost and what you have is his vision of a unique text. And what a vision it is.

Rackstraw Downes, “Outdoor Passageway at 15 Rivington” (2016), oil on canvas, 29 x 12 inches

In the exhibition, Rackstraw Downes: Paintings & Drawings, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, the viewer can linger over 13 paintings and 15 drawings done between 2009 and 2017. All the works derive from the simple, everyday act of observing your surroundings — from turning, raising and lowering your head, from seeing what’s to your immediate left and right, what’s above and below where you stand or sit.

In looking at the world before him and painting what he sees, Downes reconciles monkish self-abnegation with complete surrender. His subjects include a narrow passageway linking two buildings on the Lower East Side; a patch of creosote bushes in Texas; and the exit ramp of the George Washington Bridge. In these and other places, where people seldom walk, much less congregate, the artist plants himself and begins to draw and paint. To finish the painting, he must return to that exact spot countless times and see what he has seen before with a fresh eye. With the help of the drawings, he organizes what he is looking at — its complexity — into something no less complex. The difference is that out of this jumble Downes teases an order that seems as sturdy as the concrete and the rocks he depicts. And yet, what comes through is more than what he sees. This, I think, is essential to grasping what he means when he says, “painting is a metaphor.”

If you think Downes is a conservative realist, then you have not really looked at what he has done. He has found a way to let in the world, just as John Cage did when he had his lifelong collaborator, David Tudor, sit down in front of a piano in Maverick Concert Hall and play 4’ 33” by closing the lid and never touching a key. What the audience heard that August night was the ambient noise of the rain outside and the crickets chirping, as well as their own rustling, what the poet Tennyson called “The noise of life” in his poem, “In Memoriam A. H. H.”

Rackstraw Downes, “Sodium – Sulfur 4 Megawatt Battery System, Presidio, TX” (2013), oil on linen, 26 1/4 x 72 inches

Something similar happens whenever I look at one of Downes’s painting: I begin remembering the sounds of the place I am looking at, even if I have never been there. This is how fully his works transport me to the place where — at an earlier time — he sat or stood, and recorded what he saw in oil paint or graphite.

The complete stillness of the paintings fills the work with a depth of feeling few artists are able attain, particularly while working under the constraints of exactitude that his aesthetic demands of him. This is the monkish side of Downes, the one that patiently ponders a charmless panoramic view of a patch of Texas desert or the equally unattractive, claustrophobic view of a narrow, outdoor passageway between the backs of two tenement buildings. The fact that he refuses to make a work that is the least bit seductive or attractive is admirable, particularly since he is not interested in the opposite — repellant and ugly. There is something deeply ethical, even political in what he does, though he is far too modest to call attention to that possible reading.

Downes’s doleful views testify to a world that will never notice your inevitable absence. It keeps chugging along, unaware that you have left the room. And yet, despite this cold, indisputable fact, he continues to look, slowly and lovingly, to surrender himself to the world that surrounds him.

The telephone lines crisscrossing the desert industrial zone of “Sodium – Sulfur 4 Megawatt Battery System, Presidio, TX” (2013) and the diagonal, elevated exit ramp extending into “George Washington Bridge Exit Ramp Over Riverside Drive, NYC” (2015) remind us that the world extends beyond what the eye can see, and that the world is traversed by highways, roads, sidewalks, bridges, passageways, and delivery systems. Even if that action is not shown in Downes’s paintings and drawings, it is clear from what he includes that he knows the world is in constant motion. You can step back from this, perhaps, but you cannot escape it.

Rackstraw Downes, “Columbia Presbyterian: Two Pedestrian Bridges Crossing Riverside Drive” (2013), oil on canvas, 28 x 31 inches

Without relying on organizing systems such as perspective — which helps the artist become more efficient — Downes slowly works his way across the canvas, translating the three-dimensional world onto a flat, two-dimensional surface. He is devoted to seeing, which is not to be confused with perfection.

Look at the painting “Skylit Loftspace, NYC (seated)” (2015), which measures 24 by 38 inches, and you see the penciled grid lines dividing the plane into rectangles peering through the thin layer of brushed on gray paint, particularly in the upper left quadrant. Downes could have applied layers of paint until it mimicked the studio wall, but what would be the point of such eye-popping perfection? There is a difference between registering what you are seeing with a paintbrush and some paint, and making a perfect painting. This is the legacy of Paul Cezanne, which Downes has embraced.

The view in “Skylit Loftspace (seated)” is from the loft where the artist lives and works. We see the wall, the skylight overhead, the ceiling extending from the upper left edge end in a pair of windows facing the street, and the building across the way. A red chair and table on which an open computer sits occupies the lower center of the canvas. While it calls a little more attention to itself than the brown, beige and gray things in the room, it is also discreet. Positioning us inside the empty room, we are exactly where Downes is sitting. The reflection of the sunlight coming in through the window isn’t dramatic, but it is specific to the long, slow moment permeating the painting.

As an artist known for his meticulous panoramic views, Downes — who is in his late 70s — seems to be narrowing his view in recent years. This is one reason why I find “Outdoor Passageway at 15 Rivington” (2016) so moving. The address in the painting’s title tells us this is the back passageway of his gallery, located in a building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The narrow vertical painting measures 29 by 12 inches, an eccentric size perfectly suited to the subject, a walled passage with large industrial air conditioning units mounted above and ostensibly lining it. A thin strip of colorless gray sky is visible between the air conditioning units, perched on two struts, spanning the upper half of the painting, along with a tall gray pipe running up the side of a nearby building. 

On one hand, this cheerless view of dirty beige bricks and wall leading to a closed, stained door, with large objects looming overhead, presents a scrupulous view of something hidden from public view, but it is hard not to imagine that more is going on. In its close, unappealing, tamped down hues and use of dirty whites, I cannot help but think that the work of the Dutch painter Pieter Jansz. Saenredam (1597–1665) was on Downes’s mind while he worked on this painting.

Rackstraw Downes, “Skylit Loftspace, NYC (seated)” (2015), oil on linen, 24 x 38 inches

Saenredam is known for his paintings of the whitewashed stone interiors of Dutch churches after the Protestant Reformation stripped them of decorative elements. He was interested in the light filling these vast, austere interiors. His resistance to displaying any sign of hedonism — from the viscosity of the paint to the severe austerity of his subject matter — finds resonance in Downes’s work. I think of “Outdoor Passageway at 15 Rivington” as the latter’s tribute to his predecessor. Yet, instead of viewing the interior of an immense church filled with light, we are standing at one end of a narrow passageway, walls pressing in, facing a closed door. There is a bench to the right, placed against the wall.

By electing to paint this narrow, closed view, Downes shapes his passage through time, marking the passing of days and months with a sensitive application of punctilious brushstrokes. At the same time, he is openly acknowledging that the world is closing down around him, and that he is beginning to see less and less of it. I can think of few artists who recognize their eventual and unavoidable absence from the world — its stony impassiveness — with such tenderness and self-possessed elegance.

In “Outdoor Passageway at 15 Rivington,” Downes recognizes infinite time (the sky above), seasonal time (the air conditioning units), and historical time (the dirty walls), as well as time passing (the passageway). Despite all the physical evidence that there is nothing more than disposable matter, he does something that only paint can do. He registers matter and light and color and air, however drab their outward appearance. His fidelity to seeing becomes a quietly joyful testimony to his faith in art, and that it (and presumably us) will continue into the future, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Rackstraw Downes: Paintings and Drawings continues at Betty Cunningham Gallery (15 Rivington Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 14.

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