Rackstraw Downes: A Peek Behind the Curtain and Perspective (almost) without Orthogonal Lines

Betty Cunningham Gallery, September 5 - October 14, 2018

“Creosote Bushes, Presidio, TX, study” (detail) (2013), 10” x 44”

So, a raw sienna underpainting, possibly with a touch of burnt umber ? —scrubbed or is it scumbled onto the canvas, a grid of pencil lines—unfinished? A study or was it just so beautiful as is that Downes decided to leave it and show it—with its washes and touches and white highlights?
I think he’s right.

Was the untouched top meant to be a darker cloud using a color he hadn’t used yet, he seems to work all over the canvas at once, so why has he not touched that part? The distant row of houses and blue sky is the most finished part of the painting, raising another question—whether he paints the far distance first always or just in this picture?


“Creosote Bushes, Presidio, Texas, study” (2013), 10” x 44”

The pencil line grid—what is he using it for? I’m sure it’s not to transfer a photograph and I’m pretty sure that Downes does not use a drawing machine like the Alberti Frame, a rectangle gridded with thread and a dowel rod to always find the correct eye position. See below for instructions on how to make one, and a safety warning.

Downes may be using it to transfer a preliminary drawing though.

“Skylit Loftspace, NYC (seated)”, (detail) (2015)

In this detail from Skylit… the painting is squarer and the grid is too. The underpainting is redder—straight burnt sienna? Also of note, since it pertains to another point that I make below: In the title, Downes indicates that he was seated.

“Creosote Bushes, Presidio, TX” (2016)

Creosote Bushes…pictured above—and left, center and right details below—is a funny and wonderful exercise in perspective. There are no straight lines extending into the distance except for the telephone lines on the upper right. I guess single point perspective would never have been invented by artists working in the desert. For that, roads, buildings and phalanxes of soldiers were necessary. Elements of perspective are obviously there, and yet his head and eyes move freely.


“Creosote Bushes, Presidio, TX” (detail) (2016)









“Creosote Bushes, Presidio, TX” (detail) (2016)


“Creosote Bushes, Presidio, TX” (detail) (2016)









The counterpoint of the vanishing point is the vantage point—where the painter (or the viewer) stands. I get a strong physical sense of the vantage point in Downes’ works. This may be because one of the first drawings of his that I saw was a view from Canal Street that elicited a very specific memory of standing exactly there. But I feel it in this painting too. If I was walking or driving by, at exactly that point, the landscape would click into place. In effect, it enlarges the world, making it clear that there is an infinity of places from which to view it.

“…I begin remembering the sounds of the place I am looking at, even if I have never been there. This is how fully his works transport me to the place where — at an earlier time — he sat or stood, and recorded what he saw in oil paint or graphite.”                                       John Yau, Hyperallergic *

I was gratified to see that Yau agrees with me because when I asked Rackstaw Downes personally about it, and I am paraphrasing our conversation, I was like, “Say Rackstraw, isn’t your real subject the precise place where you are standing?” He was like, “Cathy, you are an idiot!”


*“The Radical Possibility of Seeing What Is Front of You” by Jon Yau


A note on the Alberti frame from The National Portrait Gallery that accompanies instructions on how to build one:

“Please note: Because of the fact that in using this piece of equipment you will be keeping your eye very close to a pole, it must be stressed that the use of this drawing machine can be potentially very dangerous. It must therefore only be used under the strict supervision of an adult. The National Portrait Gallery accepts no responsibility for any injuries caused through accidents or your own inattention in using this tool.”