Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The works of Rackstraw Downes

A recent weekend found my wife and I around Chelsea hopscotching the gallery offerings there. What was originally planned to be a short trip to the Brooklyn Museum turned into a Chelsea/Chinatown trek with the hope that we could score a double win: Enjoy the art picks at the galleries and drop in for some heavenly dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown. A sudden change of plans also meant that we did not have a 'preferred gallery' visit-list to go by. We decided to rough it out and ‘randomly’ visit galleries (not a recommended option, but under the circumstances…) and see if we could be entertained. Heading south from 26th street, we stopped off at about 15 galleries and we did notice the usual Chelsea fare – brand name school MFAs with their ‘found’ artworks, artists working on their mid-life crisis', career retrospectives of established artists and the newly effulgent ones with their showy picks. Of course, the usual exhibit showing the next emerging hotshot Chinese artist also featured in one of the galleries that we passed by.

Figuring we would get more of the same, we dropped into yet another brand name gallery - the Betty Cunningham gallery – expecting to be greeted with the usual slickness and the somewhat forced fecundity of the contemporary art gallery scene. Boy!, We were surprised. The gallery was showing the works of Rackstraw Downes – a 70 year old American artist originally from England. My wife or I are not avid followers of ‘realist’ art, but the paintings of Mr. Rackstraw (that sure is a strange name) seem to border on the cusp between the abstract representation of a scene and a faithful rendering of the same on canvas. Not sure which side hangs more heavily. The paintings in this show are more of everyday scenes done plein air and feature scenes that one does not focus too much in the unhealthy speed of our busy city or country lives. The scenes happen to be there, right in front of us, invisible but imposing – the bridge, the skyway, the mesa or the rolling hills. In his hands, they seem to magically become a portal for additional scrutiny that seems to draw and tug a viewer strongly. I normally do not gush too much about art, but these paintings did it for us. He seems to have painted a good number of normal sized pieces and some really abnormal pieces – pieces that are about 15 inches high but stretch almost half the length of the gallery wall space (some were about 150 inches long). These are paintings of landscapes around Presidio, Texas and viewers could almost lose oneself in the panorama presented - a very novel device to present vistas – I must say.
This show is highly recommended and I would urge you to go and visit the gallery (if you are in town).

In his words:
A professional artist’s life is uncertain and miserable and everyday you feel obliged to do something extraordinary and unusual. It has its problems, it really does. The vagaries of fashion whisk you in and whisk you out again, and give you an income and take it away again. I will say this though, that all of us that are painters or poets or whatever spend quite a big chunk of time everyday doing exactly the thing we really want to do. And that can’t be said by lots of people.
- From the gallery catalogue whose price of $ 30 had us balking, but the gallery owner on seeing our excited expressions agreed to let us have it for free!
There is an interesting interview here.

A Stop on the J Line (Alabama Avenue), 2007, oil on canvas, 11" X 18"

'Henry Hudson Bridge Substructure, A.M.', 2006, Oil on canvas, 39" X 32"

'Daphne Cummings' Brooklyn Studio', 2006, oil on canvas, 23" X 32" (my favorite)

'Atlantic Avenue at the entrance to the Van Wyck Expressway', 2007, Oil on canvas, 14" X 55"

'Presidio Horse Racing Association Track, Presidio, TX, 3. Looking South and West: the North Horse Shelter with the end of the track', 2006, Oil on canvas, 15" X 100"

'Presidio Horse Racing Association Track, Presidio, TX, 2. Looking West, North and Northeast: the South and North Horse Shelters' , 2006, Oil on canvas, 15" X 120"

Installation view

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