Rackstraw Downes at Betty Cuningham Gallery

Rackstraw Downes A Stop on the J Line (Alabama Avenue) 2007, oil on canvas, 11 x 18-5/8 inches, Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Rackstraw Downes, A Stop On The “J” Line (Alabama Avenue) (2007), oil on canvas, 11″ x 18-5/8″; courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

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Jerry Saltz, art critic for New York magazine, appeared on a panel a few years back where he described the painter Rackstraw Downes as “strong conservative.” We know what “strong” is: forceful, confident and of a high quality. But “conservative”—what on earth can that mean?

Mr. Downes is a representational painter—this is to say, an artist who creates recognizable images. But so are Will Cotton, Neo Rauch and Carroll Dunham. No one runs around pegging them as “conservative,” so that can’t be it.

Mr. Downes paints from direct observation; he doesn’t use photographs, delve in to the recesses of his imagination or poach upon pop culture. He looks to the Old Masters for inspiration. Hieronymous Bosch—that’s his thing.

Mr. Downes’ canvases are devoid of irony or commentary. A painter through and through, he leaves snark and theory to others. Anyone familiar with Mr. Downes’ work or his indispensable book, In Relationship to the Whole: Three Essays From Three Decades 1973, 1981 and 1996, knows of his unwavering commitment to the art form. Could it be his steadfast aesthetic that qualifies him as “conservative”?

Whatever. It’s enough that Mr. Downes’ recent paintings, on exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery, are among his best.

They stirred not a few painters I encountered at the exhibition. One of the greatest compliments an artist can receive is the extent to which he motivates other artists to head to their studios. Mr. Downes’ paintings are doing that. The rest of us should take note of his peers’ enthusiasm.

On the cover of the exhibition catalog is a photo of Mr. Downes’ easel set up under the Henry Hudson Bridge. It’s tied down like a complicated bit of camping gear. Actually, it’s two easels holding a single canvas. Mr. Downes doesn’t need a gust of wind interfering with his putting brush to canvas. An artist of fierce concentration, Mr. Downes has enough to contend with standing on his signature turf: Unlovely and inhospitable terrain.

Mr. Downes parks himself under the tracks of the J line in Brooklyn. He does the same on Atlantic Avenue, looking up at the entrance to the Van Wyck Expressway. The Henry Hudson Parkway interests Mr. Downes less for its encompassing views of New Jersey than the substructure of its bridge. He paints the Guggenheim Museum surrounded by scaffolding. It’s a construction sight, not a cultural institution.

Mr. Downes works outside New York as well. There are paintings devoted to be a racetrack in Presidio, Texas. Scrub brush, tire tracks, rickety horse shelters, phone lines, a distant mountain range … and is that a porto-san?—Mr. Downes doesn’t miss a trick. In a suite of six canvases, he walks around a barn and paints his “circumambulation.” Returning to the city, he depicts a friend’s hangarlike Brooklyn studio.

Wherever he is, Mr. Downes is—well, “at home” isn’t the right way to put it. The paintings are marked by absence, not comfort. They’re notably bereft of humankind. The service workers at the bottom right of The El and Alabama Avenue with the East New York Bus Depot of the MTA (2007)—Mr. Downes’ titles are finicky and matter-of-fact—are negligible. They’re an architectural element of their gritty, drive-through surroundings and nothing more.

Like Monet, albeit steelier in temperament, Mr. Downes is “only an eye—yet what an eye.” He doesn’t relish what’s before him—he interrogates it. Romance is out of the question, as is the picturesque. We register Mr. Downes’ dogged isolation, but not for long, and then not at all. He renders himself intensely invisible. Narrowness of outlook serves as a motor for clarity. Observation is a challenge of no mean effort.

As a paint-handler, Mr. Downes gets the job done. He’s precise, cold and methodical. Sensuality—forget it; the very idea is alien to him. Anything approaching individuality of touch is subsumed by the vagaries of light and, most inventively, space. Mr. Downes’ paintings zoom. A Stop on the J Line (Alabama Avenue) (2007) loops like silly putty stretched to its limit. The paintings pull at the eye with almost frightening insistence.

“There is an agenda here,” he admits. “The top of the painting is usually sky, all airy and light … fleecy and vaporous. So it interests me to reverse this situation.” The extremity of viewpoint, from below an underpass or at a distance from a mountain range, renders the sky, not confrontational, exactly, but muscular. Notwithstanding the immaculate clatter of industry and subway girders, the centralized “window” of sky in Under the J Line at Alabama Avenue (2007) is its subject and, one intuits, its inspiration.

Mr. Downes’ Texas paintings are his toughest. Their formats are outrageous: Presidio Horse Racing Association Track, Presidio, TX 1. Looking North, East and Southeast: From the Entrance on Rt. 170 to the Beginning of the Track (2007) is scaled on a ratio just short of a 1:10—it’s 15 inches high and 120 inches wide. The other Texas pictures, though not as exaggerated, are similarly and absurdly cinematic. (Extremely horizontal canvases have long been Mr. Downes’ format of choice.)

Could the high, cleansing light of the desert or its forbidding breadth of space be accurately transcribed within more traditional formats? Maybe. But one can’t imagine another painter making it as integral to his art. Like Mr. Downes himself, format is, in the end, rendered irrelevant and inevitable. Our head swivels as if we were standing behind Mr. Downes’ easel. Looking, he insists, is an infinitely complicated responsibility.

As a longtime but cautious admirer of Mr. Downes’ art, I initially found the paintings off-putting. The tremendous skill in shaping them is reliably self-evident, but so, too, is his stubborn, all but autocratic vision of form—not for nothing do some consider him heir to minimalism. This time around, resistance led to invigoration and a stern brand of pleasure. I don’t know if it’s Mr. Downes or if it’s me, but such quibbles are quashed by his masterful, all but impossible art.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 19, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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