One thing that comes across in the drawings of Rackstraw Downes is the austere, almost monastic life he has lived in order to make art.
The artists in Slab City Rendezvous influenced, nurtured, collaborated with, and painted one another, merging into one big happy family.
All of Rackstraw Downes’s work derives from the simple, everyday act of observing your surroundings.
As many artists develop visual ideas through fits of revision and reworking, the consistency in the evolution of paintings in Rackstraw Downes’s current exhibition is remarkable.
Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects is a long and narrow space, somewhere between a bowling alley and a railroad apartment, on the Lower East Side. It is within this rather confined space that Marshall Price, curator at the uptown National Academy of Art, installed eleven paintings by artists committed to working from observation. Chronologically, the artists span five decades (or generations), with Lois Dodd and Lennart Anderson, born respectively in 1927 and 1928, being the oldest. The youngest include Gideon Bok, Anna Hostvedt, Sangram Majumdar and Cindy Tower, with Bok and Tower born in the 1960s, and Hostevedt and Majumdar born in the 1970s. The other artists are Susanna Coffey, Rackstraw Downes, Stanley Lewis, Catherine Murphy, and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, who were born between 1938 and 1949. Together, these artists — a number of whom have been influential teachers — suggest that observational painting is a vigorous, various, and imaginative enterprise that continues to fly under the radar.
Rackstraw Downes’s recent paintings are currently on view at Betty Cuningham Gallery. Born in 1939 in Kent, England, Downes now lives between New York City and Presidio, Texas. Well known for his panoramic landscapes, Downes works for months on site in both urban and rural surroundings. He is often described as a realist but this term is perhaps better applied to his subject matter than his technique.
Rackstraw Downes doesn’t seem like a radical. He is an understated Englishman who paints understated American landscapes. But when you think about how much of modern and contemporary art relies on juxtaposition or exaggeration for effects, Downes’s approach begins to seem downright revolutionary. “My idea is to paint the real nature of the world, which is always a complex mixture of things,” he told a packed auditorium at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, during a talk last month.