PLAYING WITH FLATNESS “In the High Island Oil Field, February, After the Passage of a Cold Front,” oil on canvas by Rackstraw Downes, 16 x 120 inches, 1990.
The first thing you notice about the Rackstraw Downes exhibit at the Portland Museum of Art is how abstract these paintings are.
Downes has been a central figure in representational painting for nearly four decades, and, as both a painter a writer, has been providing it with a special brand of intellectual rigor. "Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008" is a broad overview of his work, with excellent examples of what sets him apart.
Downes paints en plein air and his paintings are often of panoramic length, sometimes as much as 10 feet, so they present a formidable problem in logistics, getting there and back. He executes them with careful, fine-grain detail, so he has to account for the inevitable changes in the conditions of his subject as he returns to his spot day after day, sometimes for months. He applies the paint in tiny discrete strokes rather than blending, resulting in a coherent, and quite satisfyingly realistic, representation.
The paintings' abstraction is revealed by Downes's use of a different perspective than the one in common use since the Renaissance. Look at, for instance, "At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers." The towers are larger in the foreground and smaller as they recede toward the horizon, and the ditches extend off toward the right and left, as expected. The wires on the telephone poles, however, curve sharply to the right as they come toward the viewer. One would expect, with classical multi-point perspective in mind, that they would appear to be straight.
Downes calls attention to the fact that perspective as we understand it is a convention, and that we apply that template over everything we see. His curved space subverts our expectations and directs us to attempt to see how things really are when we are there, rather than how we habitually order our visual sensations.
In the painting "In the High Island Oil Field, February, After the Passage of a Cold Front," which is, by the way, 10 feet wide and only 16 inches high, the horizon bends in a gentle, symmetric curve that reaches its highest at the center. It is dotted with perhaps a dozen oil pumps, large when closer and getting smaller in the distance, random cattle scattered about, with a ditch and road starting on either side and converging in the center, far away. The east Texas landscape is pretty flat, and the horizon would appear to most travelers as straight, but Downes wants us to apprehend the painting as a real experience of distance, not as a demonstration of multi-point perspective.
There's also, as there often is in his titles, a bit of a joke here — the High Island salt dome is, at a minuscule elevation 38 feet, the highest point on the Gulf between Louisiana and the Yucatan — it's flat there. The title of a series of paintings of a Coney Island rail yard surrounded by a chain link fence and razor wire contains the letters ASOTSPRIE, which means, in New York-ese, park your car to the other side of the street tomorrow or risk a nasty fine.