Saturday, January 21, 2012

Under the el -- a Saturday reprise


A few words of appreciation for English-born artist Rackstraw Downes. (Click pic to enlarge.)

I am not generally a fan of photorealism in painting, preferring some element of abstraction in my landscapes, such as in the work of Wayne Thiebaud. But there is something compelling about Downes' meticulous renderings of urban, industrial and scrubby country environments. He has been called "a bard of weeds." He might equally be called a bard of rust, or crumbling concrete, or dirt.

But no. That is to ignore a delicacy of light and shadow, of water and air, of stainless steel and glistening glass.

You can visit some of his work here.

There is more going on in these paintings than composition, color, and technique, more than disquisitions on the visual perception of three-dimensional space and its representation on two-dimensional surface. Downes wants us to see something that is so commonplace that we seldom see it al all, something that is all around us on every side -- the human-made environment. A world made willy-nilly by human artifice. A world that in some eerie sense overwhelms its makers, ignores us even, mocks us with its own disturbing inorganicity.

But beauty too.

Very little of what Downes chooses to paint was contrived to be beautiful. Its purpose is almost exclusively utilitarian -- a vast untenanted space in the World Trade Center, for example, redeemed from total artifice only by shafts of winter sunlight. But there is a beauty in these paintings that the artist's eye discovers. Or does the artist's eye impose the beauty?

One has to look carefully at Downes' paintings to find the occasional human presence, diminutive doll-like figures going about their business. But there is one human presence that can't be ignored -- that of the artist, the eye that beholds, and through his "being there", we are there too.

Because these images were made brush stroke by brush stroke over an extended timespan, and not by the click of a camera's shutter, we stand there with Downes, watching, watching, watching as he painstakingly applies paint to canvas, forced dab by dab to see the world we have made, a world in which utilitarian artifice has squeezed the organic into graceless nooks and corners. What is required, the artist seems to be saying, is a new esthetic, one that -- for better or worse -- makes room for the patently artificial.