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Doris Downes
at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation

Dragonfly on Slipper Petal Oil on linen

ART TIMES July August 2008

HISTORY HAS NOT been kind to female botanical artists — as if either the subject or the gender of the artist was beneath “serious” consideration for the self-acclaimed pundits of art — and we have made ourselves culturally poorer for the deliberate and persistent oversight. A few years back — in our March 2007 Issue — I addressed this problem in a review of an exhibit entitled “Drawn and Colored by a Lady: Four Centuries of Female Artists” featuring the work of  “Lady” botanical artists at Arader Galleries in New York City. I raised the question then, and I repeat it now — why the gender bias when male botanical artists such as Pierre Joseph Redouté (to name but the most obvious example) became known worldwide as a court painter? As the title of the show at Arader Galleries indicated, the only recognition women botanical painters garnered was the almost grudging “drawn and colored by a lady” affixed to such work when not done by male hands.

Broken Angel, Oil on panel

With the current exhibition* at the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in Cross River, New York, I once again have the occasion — and pleasure — to “beat the drum” in the name of “Lady” botanical artists — in this case, of Doris Downes and her tastefully hung exhibition, “Eden (!) Naturally”, in The Gallery in the Park. Some thirty-eight paintings (oils, watercolors, and gouaches) and eight small bronze and paper sculptures make up the show, and for anyone captivated by the beauty of nature, this is one show you ought not miss — for both the work on view and its venue in this lovely Westchester Park is sure to delight.

Jack in Pulpit w/c

True to her calling of being a botanical painter, Doris Downes has a keen eye and sure hand, necessities for anyone attempting to replicate nature with any verisimilitude. Unlike the landscape painter who has long adopted the right — even the mandate — to ‘improvise’, to imprint his or her own vision on nature’s forms, the botanical painter must needs bury such urges to ‘invent’ in order to earn the right to properly represent her. No greater challenge, then, than to put forth in two dimensions the intricacies of a three-dimensional flower without fudging the job. Downes is most successful in accomplishing this feat when she turns her hand to watercolor (there are fourteen in the show), her works on paper almost always graceful, at times gorgeous (see e.g. “Paphiopedilum Xiang Tong), and, at other times, dramatically forceful (“Toxic Garden”). To this viewer, watercolor is by far her strongest medium, the technique most successful in showing her sensitivity to her subjects. As any experienced watercolorist knows, it is no easy task to make the medium “behave” and it takes years of practice in hand/eye coordination to make it work — Downes obviously has had such experience.

Pink Peony, Watercolor on Paper

This is not to say that her oils (on linen, canvas and panel) deserve short shrift. “Coming Home” (reproduced on the invitation), “Broken Angel”, “Flora and Fauna”, “The Pollinator” and “Chillin” for instance, are of the highest quality but, generally speaking, I came away with a preference for her smaller works in oil, tight in composition and delicate in the use of color. It is my belief that her strong background in composition holds her in good stead here, offering the eye lingering images long after leaving the gallery (“Dragonfly on Slipper Petal”, for example), while such paintings as “Hudson Valley Wall” and “Landscape 1” with their attempt at spontaneity through the use of loose brushstrokes and undefined outlines, less memorable. Her treatment of skies — realistically lovely in “The Pollinator”, surreal in “Can You See This” — are usually exceptionally handled, and one suspects that Downes spends a good deal of time en plein air intently studying her subjects. Downes’ oils are also more vibrant, colorfully seductive (though often lost in the larger paintings, which tend to dissipate visual impact) than her watercolors, which are muted — and rightfully so, since the seduction of color can often lead the eye away from detail and precision, prerequisites in botanical representations.

Although cleverly realized (Downes gives credit to Mike Lupa and Dave Weinstein for casting and patina respectively), her eight “bird” sculptures left me largely indifferent, their folded, paper wing-construction affixed to bronze bodies reminiscent of those I’ve come across in Czech (Prague) craft shops — “cute” but aesthetically bland. Undoubtedly their inclusion makes “sense” in this particular venue of parkland, but they are hardly on a par with her botanical masterworks.

Paphiopedilum Xiang Tong
Watercolor on paper

Viewing “EDEN(!) Naturally” is a perfect opportunity to see both an exceptionally beautiful exhibition and to visit one of Westchester County Parks Department’s prime “Art in Parks” locations. Well-known to landscape artists for its varied landscape opportunities —a group of painters met on-site and painted at Ward pound Ridge a few days after I visited Downes’ exhibition — the Reservation served as the setting for the movie “Pollack” made some years ago about Jackson P{ollock’s ‘Springs’. In addition to The Gallery in the Park, another gallery, The W.P.A. Gallery, is located a short distance away and presently features the work of Dyan Rosenberg (thru Jul 27)).

*EDEN(!) Naturally: An Exhibition of Paintings & Small Sculptures by Doris Downes (thru Sep 7): The Gallery in the Park, Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Cross River, NY (914) 864-7317


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