Rackstraw Downes at Betty Cuningham and Greg Lindquist at Elizabeth Harris
Betty Cuningham Gallery
Greg Lindquist: Industry
Landscape painting is usually a vehicle for observing the effects of weather, light, and space – in short, for thoroughly traditional goals that might seem sentimental in cutting-edge circles today. In a pair of Chelsea exhibitions, however, two contemporary painters, born 40 years apart, revitalize the venerable genre in completely different ways.
According to painter Rackstraw Downes (b. 1939), his upbringing by actor parents cured him of any interest in theatrics, and the presumptuous claims made for abstract painting drove him towards representation. Drama of another kind, however, abounds in his intense, peculiarly non-picturesque scenes of urban and rural sites. Beneath his exacting technique lie original perceptions and ferociously focused thinking. His nearly 20 recent paintings at Betty Cuningham have a kind of straitened exuberance; they impress as radiant craft, but are moving, ultimately, for the independence and determination of his investigations.
Mr. Downes’ subjects tend be unbeautiful, overlooked scenes galvanized by their spatial extremes. The broad vistas of Texas scrublands stream across several canvases with very wide formats; elevated highways and bridges soar through others. Executed on site after numerous preparatory sketches, these paintings amount to portraits of spatial configurations rather then strictly of objects. Mr. Downs’ meticulous technique makes these marginal and forgotten sites seem elegant, almost crystalline in their detail, but their most compelling aspect lies in the way his “uncompromising empiricism,” as he calls it, leads to vertiginous renderings of space.
In the small painting “A Stop on the J Line (Alabama Avenue)” (2007), the sweep of an elevated subway line fills the breadth of the canvas, its curvature exaggerated as if viewed through a fish-eye lens. The naturalism of the midday illumination and the plethora of details – down to the rivets on some girders – vie with the extravagant proportions of the structure, which dwindles drastically towards either side of the canvas, slipping away from us like a rock falling down a sunlit well.
A similar drama animates the striking, nearly six-foot-wide “The Pulaski Skyway Crossing the Hackensack River” (2007). This painting, too, combines an Eakins-like fidelity of light and detail with vertiginous accelerations of space towards the sides. The elevated highway’s main span is not quite symmetrical on the canvas, giving rise to new intrigues: a shelf of land at the lower right corner edges towards the closer section of the span; a power plant, perched at the far shore of a shimmering plane of water, leans slightly as it reaches towards the bridge’s vast arc.
A photograph on the cover of the exhibition catalogue provides intriguing clues into the artist’s working methods. It depicts what must be the very same canvas, mounted on two French easels anchored side-by-side to the ground with guy-wires. (“Plein-air,” in this case, involves full-force wind.) Overhead arcs the Skyway, neck-twistingly high and close. Upon minute examination, every detail in the photograph – even a bent wire protruding through the foreground cement – reappears in the painting.
In his eloquent writings, Mr. Downes argues that such paintings are truthful records of perceived events. He has a point: Our eyes can focus on only one point at a time, and large portions of our brains are devoted to joining these separate perceptions into seamless, practical experiences. Linear perspective is, after all, a graphic convention, not a physical law, and it breaks down for wide-angle views. (To prove this, stand in the center of the gallery’s larger space, facing one of the long walls. Its horizontal top edge pitches downward as it approaches either corner – a pencil held horizontally at arm’s length demonstrates this – which means that a drawing of the entire wall must connect these opposing angles in a broad curve.)
Four very long paintings, 15 inches high and eight to ten feet long, depict a racetrack in the Texas scrub desert. There are no people in these dirt-blown scenes, but much evidence of human activity in the posts and railings dotting the barren vastness.
From about eight feet away, the paintings demand our physical engagement; we must turn our gaze to connect the multiple diagonals of tire tracks crossing the plain. At about four feet, we’re absorbed into an enveloping, shrub-by-shrub, plotting of the surface.
Like all of Mr. Downes paintings, they reflect a unique combination of aggressive conception and passive elaboration. Fervent perceptions of space enliven their broad outlines; details follow, filling in the story of each site exactly “as is;” colors add atmosphere and light. At various points in the exhibition, his colors provide something else: a compositional urgency of their own. In a 2007 painting of Atlantic Avenue, for instance, evanescent yellow-grays poignantly convey the sweeping, overhead weight of the AirTrain cement guideway. In a canvas from 2006, the tiny glimmer of flood lamp reflectors, and the escape to a pinkish sunlit wall through a doorway, vividly punctuate the somber hues of a huge artist’s studio. And in that painting of the Alabama Avenue subway station, masses of color dramatically build as the central knotting of girders perforated by notes of sky. Mr. Downes’ non-hierarchical compositions tend to preclude the interaction of drawing and color – with impulses of hue conditioning as well as responding to the forces of drawing – but at points his paintings hint at what Corot so wondrously achieved in his early studies of Roman aqueducts and Mount Soracte.
At Elizabeth Harris, nine paintings by Greg Lindquist (b. 1979) share this fascination with forlorn spaces. The desolation of his cityscapes, however, has a more romantic aspect – and, it’s soon apparent, an overarching political purpose. His distilled forms and subdued, almost mordant palette impart a wan massiveness to the crumbling hulks of abandoned factories and warehouses in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Red Hook sections. Most of the paintings describe the paler notes of the sky or the East River with metallic paint, which glimmers quietly over the sagging buildings and through skeletal structures. Plant life, such as it is, appears as stringy, khaki tufts at the edges of empty lots. Construction cranes, not humans, populate these worlds; in one painting they loom above a jagged wall like prison watch towers. Only the occasional corner of an apartment building or a splash of graffiti hints at living, human traffic.
The metallic paint, plus the 2-inch depth of the edges of the paintings, emphasizes the materiality of the work. The scenes feel ethereal rather than leaden, though, as if aerated by an otherworldly, radioactive wind. In “Decay of Industry, Industry of Decay” (2007), licks of metallic paint, showing through strokes of an unnamable gray, neatly sum up the effect of rippled water beneath building and vacant sky. In “The Similitudes of The Past and those of The Future” (2007), a broad streaking of yellowy gray – a forgettable note in any other context – convinces as the ground plane stretching tautly across the painting’s width.
As for those prolix titles: these add a political earnestness not immediately apparent in the brushstrokes themselves. They reveal how every work in fact involves an argument about urban development. The sardonically titled “Red Hook’s Residuum (New Products, New Ideas, New Designs)” 2007 depicts the soon-be-completed IKEA megastore with the same rawness as the decaying factories. “East River State Park (Endangered Site for Preservation, Nest Egg for Luxury)” (2007), a rendering of a Greenpoint construction site, makes clearer still the “green” message behind these grayed tones. The fervent political engagement vies intriguingly with the eerie desolation of the images, in which a new IKEA warehouse and abandoned sugar refinery can seem equally exotic.
Both Downes and Lindquist ply a route between the traditional and the postmodern. Neither has much use for the “composed” look of most art prior to 1960. Downes’ panoramas employ an all-over, all-encompassing space that may be his only borrowing from Abstract Expressionism. Lindquist’s strong suit is atmosphere and a social conscience. The two artists also share a decidedly non-postmodernist trait: a conviction about their goals. Both aim unabashedly for something nobler than the elliptical irony of much of today’s art.
And in both artists’ paintings, sequences of colors sometimes impose their own character on simple events. My favorite moment of the two exhibitions occurs as a judge’s tower rises above the arid earth in one of Downes’ racetrack paintings. The humble structure – a welded steel armature topped by corrugated metal – faces us squarely across the parched landscape, its ridges caught in the raking light. This delicately striated square becomes the sole, resolute interruption of the relentless horizon. Nearby, three elements chatter: the roof of a spectator’s shelter, which hovers, a sliver of absorbent blue, above the raw tones of earth; its shadow, a even deeper, darker note beneath; and the purple-gray mass of hills miles away on the horizon, less regular in shape but equally anchored to the earth. The three pressures converse across a mysteriously vast distance, expanding its space more radically than the tire tracks plunging towards the horizon. What better evocation of the realities of color and line?
Downes until March 1 (541 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-242-2772).
Lindquist until March 8 (529 W 20th St, between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-463-9666).
This article was originally published as two separate reviews at the New York Sun in February 2008