Downs borrows from classic portraiture and art history on several occasions, referencing the frank, otherworldly sexuality of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” or that iconic Cezanne “Bathers” image of women arranged in the landscape like performers in a theatrical production. But his work is a complication of that history, in which his female models are contorted, bound, and ensnared in what looks like barbed wire, an almost arabesque flourish that ornaments the majority of the works. It’s only natural that in our present age, even gestures of sex and desire seem more complicated, haunted by ennui and more pathos than pleasure.
The landscape itself takes on a slightly sinister, dystopian, sexual dimension in Downs’ work, as in that Cezanne tribute in ink wash and spray paint on drywall, the 96-by-100-inch “The Bathers, Bathing,” where the mountain ranges in the distance mimic breasts and hips and a dystopian air attends the scene of female bodies in repose.
William Downs’ “Some Fly We All Fall,” in ink wash and spray paint. CONTRIBUTED BY SANDLER HUDSON GALLERY
What gives Downs’ works their distinction is their humility: He paints with simple, inexpensive materials of ink, spray paint and paper. But Downs’ art is also unique for its disconcerting, almost sci-fi tone, which can seem to usher us into a darker world, much as another Atlanta painter, Kojo Griffin, also uses his rag dolls and animals to mine ugly and dark human experiences.
The implications of Downs’ drawings can fluctuate. There is something willfully vaporous in both his technique and his intent. At times, he seems to be critiquing our present age of selfie sticks and self-care and the onanistic pursuit of health and well-being in “Yoga Girls,” a 113-by-113-inch drawing where bodies contort and twist, stacked up into lewd, orgiastic piles of flesh. In “Unarmed,” it’s hard not to see references to the Black Lives Matter movement in his figure with arms raised above his head in a gesture of submission.
But more than anything, Downs seems seduced by this alternate reality he has conjured up with fleeting gestures gleaned from art history and our present age. Best not to look for larger meaning. Better to simply dwell for a moment in Downs’ moody subjective universe without expecting the bolt of lightning revelation that never comes.
“William Downs: Inhuman”
Through June 9. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Saturdays. Free. Sandler Hudson Gallery, 1000 Marietta St. NW, Suite 116, Atlanta. 404-817-3300, sandlerhudson.com.
Bottom line: A talented Atlanta artist's drawings privilege mood and gesture over a unifying theme in solo show.
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