Walking into the Portland Museum of Art’s exhibition area for paintings by contemporary artist Rackstraw Downes, one is enveloped with a feeling of serenity.

More than 24 artworks have been hung attractively on yellow walls to complement the colors dominant in each and to create an atmosphere of warmth.

Space is key to a successful display of works by this artist, considered one of the most distinctive representational painters of his generation — with some small pieces grouped together and others so large they cover an entire wall.

Besides his precise focus on detail beyond most people’s visual awareness, Downes’ signature is his unique approach to realism coupled with his technique of creating works on-site.

Downes chooses to paint landscape scenes the average person overlooks, from roadways and factories along the East Coast to the New York City skyline to the vast scrubland of Texas, where he has lived.

And all scenes are from a unique perspective.

Downes has an uncanny gift for drawing, something he does before meticulously painting a scene on-site. None of his paintings are created from photographs.

His landscapes invite viewers to reconsider the intersection between the natural world and man-made objects, and, according to the PMA, in order to capture the precise details of lighting and weather, he can spend many months completing a single piece.

Organized by the Parrish Art Museum in South Hampton, N.Y., the “Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings” exhibit showcases major works of both exterior and interior panoramic scenes of the American landscape, done from 1972 to 2008.

Born in England in 1939, Downes developed his panoramic style by studying 17th-century Dutch landscape painting.

“Untenanted Space in the World Trade Center-Winter Sun,” an oil on canvas done in 1998, is impressive. Downes subtly uses gray tones and white to create slat designs of light on the floor coming through side windows. The wide perspective he chose seems to open up the interior in this haunting depiction of unoccupied interior space in the World Trade Center in 1998.

Downes’ unusual use of perspective in a two-part canvas titled “The Mouth of the Passagassawaukeag at Belfast, ME, Seen From the Frozen Foods Plant” draws the viewer right into the location. The details — a bridge over water, railroad tracks on a banking, and bridge pilings and trees reflected in the water — are breathtaking.

A view of studio space in a work titled “Daphne Cummings’ Brooklyn Studio” highlights Downes’ interest in architecture and his wonderful ability to capture the spirit of place. His expert use of white and varying shades of gray to depict light coming in from the doorway and skylights is but one way he creates perspective in the enormous interior.

“The Dam at Fairfield,” an oil on canvas done in 1974, reflects the artist’s fascination with Maine water scenes. Light reflected in this painting is blue, the color of a New England sky.

Downes captures the yellow light and flat land of Texas in “Farm Buildings Near the Rio Grande: West End of the Barn, P.M.” and “Farm Buildings Near the Rio Grande: Under the Barn Roof, A.M.”

One of the largest paintings in the exhibit offering a panoramic view is titled “Garbage Arriving in Barges at Fresh Kills is Hauled to the Top of the Landfill in Athey Wagons.” This monumental oil painting measures 17 1/2 by 120 1/2 inches and stretches across the entire center wall of the PMA gallery. On loan from the Colby College Museum of Art, it epitomizes the show — monumental art with painstaking detail, sharp focus and unique perspective.

Downes visited Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in 1962 at the advice of Alex Katz, his teacher at Yale University School of Art. Downes became a faculty member of the Skowhegan school in 1975.

Recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” award, a coveted award in the art world, Downes is both an intellectual and a respected artist with works in major museums across the country.

“Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings” exhibit will be up through March 20.

The museum at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.”

Contemporary artist Rackstraw Downes will discuss his paintings, especially those depicting Maine scenes, at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6, at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. Admission: $15. For more information, call the museum at 775-6148, ext. 3224.


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