Rackstraw Downes

April 19, 2012 § 5 Comments

“When I… started painting from observation, one of the reasons was that I didn’t want to be so damn self-conscious about my paintings… Why not just look at something and paint it the way it is? Plop! And that’s what I did.

People often say to me, why do you pick such banal subjects, and I don’t understand that at all. They don’t seem to me to be banal in the least. They’re full of magic.

I came from a very flamboyant household, very theatrical – a very histrionic household. Everything was exaggerated; you never knew what anyone meant, and I didn’t like it. And I didn’t trust my own histrionics either, or strong affect, or whatever it is… in my paintings I try to get all that out and state it exactly – ‘no no, that’s not the way that air conditioner sits in that window. Do it again, Downes, and get it right this time, the way it really is!’ And I love that! I love feeling I have now got it, banal or not, I don’t care.

The detail comes in because you have to figure out how to move from here to here; then to here and to here… you make this block without any windows and you’re not sure whether it really is comfortably that size. As soon as you get those windows in there you get clearer and clearer and clearer about what it is. And in order to move about and keep these things in proportion I need all these things.

It’s my job to find places that answer to some internal need. I think that there’s this internal need before you get to the place and that the place answers the need.

…Could you paint a mountain without being sentimental about mountains, without falling victim to the mountain rhetoric; you know: look at this tremendous canyon, it’s so deep, and look at this terrifying crag up over your head, and all that business… I’m not interested in rhetoric at all.

I think that artists, or people who are active in another art form, even if it be writing or music… are often very, very perceptive critics of a different art form… a writer writing about painting or something, because they realize the limitations of criticism. Criticism can’t do everything, it can’t explain everything, and it can’t make certainties. There are no certainties in art.

There was a statement of Stendhal’s he wrote to his sister… “Only write on matters that you feel very strongly about. When you put them into words, try to do it as though you didn’t want anyone to notice.” I thought that was stunningly brilliant, and I felt exactly the same way.

I will say this… that all of us that are painters or artists or poets, or whatever it is, we spend quite a big chunk of every day doing the thing we really want to do. That cannot be said by lots of people.

– Rackstraw Downes, from video and interview by Betty Cunningham Gallery, 2007.

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§ 5 Responses to Rackstraw Downes

  • Anonymous says:

    1. Very cool.
    2. Family is destiny.

  • Craig Bell says:

    The man has been one of my favorite painters for years and this is the first time I’ve seen an interview with him. Thanks for this insight on a very talented and nice guy.

  • David Winward says:

    Interesting interview that sheds light on the artist which makes us appreciate his art even more. Downes and David Hockney, both are British and about the same age both came to America and saw our environment in an objective way that we can’t do easily. I would recommend the David Hockney video, A Bigger Picture, a full length DVD that shows him painting landscapes and being interview..

  • frankhobbs says:

    Thanks for the observations and recommendation, David.

  • David Winward says:

    Looking at more of Downe’s work I began to see an affinity of his work with Hopper’s. Although Hopper populated many of his paintings there is a loneliness transmitted to the viewer similiar to the emptiness of a Downes painting. Downes includes objects such as cars, buildings but with very few people and those depicted are usually backviews.

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