Patient and Transcendent, “Rackstraw Downes: A Painter” Honors the Act of Creation


Rackstraw Downes: A Painter is glacial and mesmerizing, the documentary equivalent of droning Tibetan singing bowls, a work crafted to induce its audience into the same contemplative state as its subject at work. Downes, a British-born realist, paints formidably detailed, sinuous urban landscapes from a pedestrian’s perspective. He spends most of the film sitting with his easel in the unlovely environs beneath the George Washington Bridge overpass in Washington Heights, making slow, assiduous marks with tiny brushes. His method is to paint on site from beginning to end, without photographs or reference, returning every day to work when the light is right. In the finished painting, Downes finds tremendous beauty in this vista, where concrete infrastructure meets brambly undergrowth, a boundary that characterizes many of his paintings.

Hunched over, face inches from the canvas as he illuminates details, he resembles a medieval ascetic. The painstaking level of attention he directs to his work seems not to extend to himself — his unkempt hair and nails speak to a certain degree of self-neglect. His energy is clearly focused on his art, which evokes surprising beauty from utilitarian spaces. Overpasses are a recurring feature, as are chain-link fences, broken pavement, parked cars, and industrial buildings. But the images are transcendent; with little planning, he discovers the beauty in these spaces as he works. And that’s the movie, basically: Mostly silent, save for ambient sounds of traffic and wind, it’s a filmic attempt to re-create Downes’s technique. Director Rima Yamazaki focuses long shots on the details: of Downes’s appearance, of the artist’s individual brushstrokes, of the equipment in his studio, and of the surroundings he reproduces on canvas.

Rackstraw Downes: A Painter

Directed by Rima Yamazaki

April 26, Anthology Archives