Friday, January 7, 2011
I spent a lovely evening last night with the renowned artist Rackstraw Downes. Of course, Rackstraw had no idea I was there, as I was one of about three hundred folks who attended a lecture he gave about his artwork currently being shown at the Portland Museum of Art. I remember thinking to myself as Ellen and I made the trip to Portland, that with a name like Rackstraw, it better be good... Mr. Downes may not be a natural raconteur, but his talk was enlightening enough. Just like you, I love to get the inside scoop about paintings straight from the horses mouth.
Coincidentally, he is featured in this month's American Artist, so check it out. In the meantime, for those of you who don't know of him (and until a couple years ago, I'd never heard of him either) here's a brief bio. He went to art school in Maine in the early 1960's to study abstract painting under Alex Katz. It was while he was in Maine that Rackstraw thought it would be fun to try a plein air of a local farm. As he told it, he discovered that plein air painting was hard. (Gee, you think? Many has been a studio painter who was completely overwhelmed the first time he tried to paint from nature). But something intrigued him about trying to paint exactly what he saw, and thus a career was born. Rackstraw only works in the field, and his precise depictions of the commonplace in the world around us is usually done in a panoramic setting. His views of city-scapes and desert scenes are really a treat to see up close.
Rackstraw was a recent recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. It is a prestigious award that comes with a boat load of cash. (By the way, for those of you from the foundation who read this, I don't care if you want to name me The MacArthur Foundation Total Pinhead -- if it comes with a little cash. Thanks!) What sets him apart from other realists--and I'm sure you noticed this in the samples I've posted-- is his unique perspective. His point of view may be looking up at an object on the left, and down on the object on the right. To accommodate this, his horizons bend and twist, yet still convey a perfect sense of reality.
And he does it all outdoors, on site. It might take him a couple of years of repeated trips to a location to finish a painting. It's an exhausting and laborious approach, but that's what gets you awards. I did pick up a few things as I listened to him. A very important element he mentioned is knowing what time of day, and at what season of the year the scene depicts. He can tell you that a particular painting shows an object at 11:30 am on a sunny day in November. I had to smile inwardly when he kept mentioning it, because I like to stay aware of that in my paintings too. So, we've got that in common... A couple of other things he mentioned in passing, without a trace of irony; Early in his plein air paintings, he was having difficulty depicting some cows for a scene. As he said, "I figured I better learn to draw." Another observation he made was that he was never taught anything about perspective in his schooling. In essence, although he never said it, he is a self-taught artist, as apparently, the only thing he learned in Art School that he applies now is how to squeeze paint from a tube. He's too much of a gentleman, to be sure, but I know what I would say if I were Rackstraw Downes--
Thanks for all that priceless abstract art education!