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Parrish Art Museum Presents Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972–2008

This exhibition is the first major survey of paintings by the British-born, Yale-educated painter Rackstraw Downes (b. 1939), who divides his time between New York and Texas and has been painting exterior and interior panoramic scenes of the American land- and urbanscape for over thirty-five years. Open through August 8, 2010.

The exhibition consists of twenty-five works, many of them multiple-part paintings, created between 1972 and 2008. It begins with two of Downes’s earliest plein air paintings, Dunham’s Farm Pond (1972) and The Dam at Fairfield (1974), and traces the artist’s career through major examples of his work executed during the following three decades: paintings done in Maine, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, including a haunting and foreboding depiction of an untenanted interior space at the World Trade Center from 1998.

Downes’s panoramic paintings, which he developed by studying seventeenth-century Dutch panoramic landscape painting, especially those of Hercules Segers and Jacob van Ruisdael, and are informed by his training as an abstract painter at the Yale School of Art, posses a unique balance between realism and abstraction, timelessness and history. Unlike the Dutch landscape paintings, which were essentially studio constructions and spatial fictions, Downes paints exclusively from direct observation over a period of several weeks to several months, outdoors or indoors, onsite using a portable easel.

Downes paintings are based on meticulous studies yet they are not truthful depictions in a photographic sense, like the works by the American photorealist painters that became prominent in the 1970s, such as Richard Estes and Robert Bechtle. Downes’s paintings are expanded in terms of space but condensed in terms of time, not unlike a nineteenth-century photograph that had to be exposed for several hours. Downes takes creative liberties that a photorealist painter would never allow himself, and because the works are painted from observation, they are not “snapshots” of a scene recreated in the studio. Rather, they are chronicles of the human existence – records of social history as it evolves.

The exhibition will travel to the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, where it will open December 15, 2010, and to the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where it will open May 21, 2011.

Curated by Klaus Ottmann Robert Lehman Adjunct Curator, Parrish Art Museum

Image: Rackstraw Downes, Ventilation Tower with Estivating Snow Plows, 1988. Oil on canvas. 38 ¼ x 50 ¼ inches. Collection of Arthur Goldstein, Upper Saddle River, N.J.

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