An Unrepentant Realist: Rackstraw Downes

Perhaps the most interesting name amongst the list of MacArthur Fellows — aka official geniuses — announced today is the realist painter Rackstraw Downes, known for his exacting portrayal of unbeautiful landscapes.

Interesting to yours truly because if art is about opening our eyes to see afresh, what better means that to show us exactly what we see but refuse to look at?

Peter Schjeldahl has a typically brilliant and unusually effusive review available, fortunately, through the New Yorker site here. The whole piece is recommended, but here's the first paragraph:

Rackstraw Downes, the veteran painter of landscapes and urban places, is
a realist esteemed by people, including me, who normally have scant use
for realism in art. His current show, of work from 1999 to 2004, at the
new Betty Cuningham Gallery, is powerful in quiet, stubborn ways. The
subjects include a viaduct in Harlem, a flood-monitoring station on the
Rio Grande, a Texas desert, electrical substations in that desert, and
metal ductwork in a large, dark attic. The look of the pictures, most
of them panoramas, is luminous but taciturn: just the facts. Their
surfaces are fine crusts of dry, oil-starved pigment, applied in sober
little strokes and patches. The tonality is so uniform that the color,
though extremely varied, turns almost monochrome in memory. “I want to
paint exactly the way something is,” Downes said to me recently. “If
that means dulling down the green, then dull it down. Find the beauty
in that.” The pressure of scrutiny in his pictures yields a revelation
not only of how the world looks but of how the eye—unaided by
photography, which Downes pointedly never uses—toils to behold it.

And here's a painting called "In the High Island oil field, late afternoon, March."

In the High Island oil field by rackstraw downes

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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