Artist of the Week 05/16/05
Drawing is the new painting. There's one much-promoted trend. Everybody draws so preposterously well now that it's almost boring.Many folks in the art world are relieved at how well the new crop of artists are drawing, though, after what had seemed a total ambivalence toward draftsmanship for ages. But this new proficiency does seem to have popped up over night. As recently as last year, in an essay that also appeared (in an edited version) in the The New York Sun, Thursday, June 3, 2004, Maureen Mullarkey opined:
Mullarkey uses this observation to introduce her thoughts about the work of English-born, New York-based painter Rackstraw Downes. Like few other living artists, Rackstraw can draw and how.
Does drawing matter anymore? It is a common question made all the more pointed by the absence of drawing in exhibitions of contemporary representational artists. All the early Modernists were great draughtsmen. Yet today, few painters draw and fewer still exhibit their drawings.
Cover of recent book of Rackstraw's work published by Princeton University Press
Rackstraw and I met many, many years ago at the Moondance Diner in Soho (you may have seen its facade on "Friends" or the first "Spiderman" movie). The food there is not as good as it used to be, and the prices are much higher now, so the old gang that used to haunt it has mostly moved on. But back in the day, I used to eat there at least once a week, usually by myself. One time I noticed a gentleman a few tables away chuckling and looking my way. He raised the book he was reading as explanation. It was the same book I was reading (Deirdre Bair's glorious biography of Samuel Beckett). We began talking about Beckett and other things and started up a correspondence (he's an absolutely delightful and staggeringly brilliant mind [he's well regarded as a writer and editor in addition to as a painter]), but it wasn't until later I realized he really was a famous painter and not just another struggling artist who hung out in diners.
Rackstraw has shown at a range of very blue chip galleries, including Marlborough and Robert Miller, and currently exhibits with Betty Cunningham.Rackstraw is perhaps best known for his paintings of places most people pay little to no attention to, places that populate the space between other places we do pay attention to, like our homes, workplace etc. Places we drive past without noticing, like industrial parks, construction sites, housing projects, refineries, and landfills.
Rackstraw Downes, Mixed Use Field on Texas Coast, 1987, oil paint on canvas on board, 11 3/4 x 58 5/8 inches
He paints them in a traditional plein air process but with a unique point of view that simulates what such vistas look like if you could see with a wide-angle vision. In other words what the space far to your left and far to your right looks like from that vantage point without flattening the landscape. This is just one of the devices he employs toward his overarching exploration of "seeing." He's really very serious about it. In a recent interview with the also brilliant publisher of The Brooklyn Rail, Phong Bui, Rackstraw plead his case this way:
[I]n a short essay called "Seeing and Copying," Valéry says that when you draw an object you realize that until then you had never actually seen it, even your best friend’s nose. I think of that as a rather serious matter: you don’t know what things look like, in terms of a drawing, but you do know what they look like in terms of your life. If you’re walking down the street you say, "Oh, there’s Phong." You don’t say, "Who the hell is that?" Recognition is there: you have an image you carry in your head. You don’t know what the image looks like on the page ‘till you draw it on the page; it’s a construction. When you make a painting, you’re constructing out of observations. I’m totally opposite to the Duchampian notion that the idea is what counts. I don’t feel like that at all. For example, I have a strong interest in environmental issues, and one of the aspects of my painting that has relevance to that is that I don’t use anything technological—my materials are terribly simple. You know, the brush hairs are from an animal, the wood from a tree, the canvas from a plant. I spend hours and hours looking at real things with as much concentration as I can muster and everything comes from that concentration. That is something that our rapid tool-bound society does not ask you to do. I’m constantly asked, "Why don’t you take a photograph of this thing?" Well, I want to make a painting.Here's another piece (unfortunately only available in black and white, but it demonstrates how impossibly well he draws). No, it's not a photograph.
Rackstraw Downes, Twelfth Ave at 134th Street, (2003), oil on canvas.