|Panel 4 of "Four Spots Along A Razor Wire Fence/ ASOTSPRIE"|
by Rackstraw Downes
You may recall the review that I wrote about this show when I saw it in Southampton, posted in this blog in October of last year (click here to read). I knew virtually nothing of the man when I wrote this essay, and in immersing myself in his life and work, I became a huge admirer. I have no personal connection, nor ulterior motive in defending him. In fact, he needs no defense from me; he could far better handle a poorly conceived article than I ever could, as he is also a distinguished critic and critical thinker. Nevertheless, I cannot let a review such as Kany's stand without question. If you read my review and his back-to-back, you can see how informed research stacks up against unexamined opinion, respectively.
Here is my rebuttal:
I feel like this review is the thing that's missing connections - numerous ones, in fact.
For one, Downes as a "child of impressionism" is a bit dodgy considering he was actually an artistic product of mid-60s Yale along with Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Janet Fish, Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, etc. --- not exactly a bastion of impressionistic painters, let alone thought.
And if by "impressionism" you mean that Downes is primarily concerned with the optical effects of on-site painting - well, that's shortchanging his work by a long shot. The idea of turning one's head in empirical space using plein air painting as a format is solely Downes' province. You did mention that, but you left out the most significant part. Downes' practice is perhaps the first "humanistic" usage of perspective in painting in a long, long time. It is perhaps the only instance of this ever seen in plein air painting. Representational art hasn't seen a change in this arena since the purely mathematical treatises by Ficino on Brunelleschi, which have been the standard since the 13th century. This is important, because the viewer is truly experiencing the "painter's view" with Downes' works as opposed to a classical, math-based rendering.
And what of narrative? What is the "cold, unappealing message" about which you write? My most recent visit to the show (my 4th, counting the Parrish Museum's exhibition in Southampton) was on a Friday, when the PMA waives its fee (a wonderful thing). This brings in a broader viewership - one that is maybe not so "intellectually elitist" as it were. I overheard numerous conversations in front of such works as "U.S. Scrap Metal Gets Shipped for Reprocessing in Southeast Asia, Jersey City" and noted many mentions of words like "environmentalism" and "ecology." This may not hit the nail on the head, but so what? There is indeed narrativity within Downes' work, and for some reason, you either failed to see it or failed to mention it. Don't even get me started on the time-based elements of his work (see: "Four Spots Along a Razor-Wire Fence"), which in and of itself implies narrative.
The most uncritical part of all this is the very fact of Downes even maintaining a presence in the contemporary discourse. If his work were as disconnected and intellectually anxious as you claim, how is he a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award winner? Those don't get handed out to artists who speak in intellectual monotone only. Not just that - but he's a painter! A plein air painter! A representational, realist, dyed-in-the-wool, outdoor painter! Contemporary critics have - for decades - relegated this kind of art and artist to the realm of the "Sunday Painter" with all of the pejoratives that entails. Have you not given thought to the fact that Downes' rising far above this must resonate with some kind of historical significance? Perhaps he's doing something not only right, but bringing something new to what had been (maybe unjustly) dismissed as hackery. And in terms of criticism, there is none more critical of representational realist art than Peter Schjeldahl; in fact, he's on record as "having scant use for it" ['True Views.' New Yorker, Oct. '04. p 208]. Yet, even this respected (albeit ruthless) critic reserved praise for Downes, which speaks volumes.
You can't dismiss these things in the name of uncritical opinion. It does a disservice to the artist, the museum and the reader. If you are to "take on the great ones" (as you Tweeted), you may need to research the greatness of your subject more thoroughly. I've already done that (with citations to back my claims), should you care to take a look: http://robsullivanartnotes.blogspot.com/2010/10/show-review-rackstraw-downes-onsite.html
Not sure what to expect in return, but I stand by my words as something that's far more fair than slapdash opinion.