Art review: A sense of ennui pervades William Downs’ moody drawings

Strange creatures with naked bodies and bald heads act out equally bizarre gestures in artist William Downs’ drawings. Downs’ solo show is titled “Inhuman,” and his figures with their part rag doll, part “Metropolis” robot appearance certainly wed the human and the otherworldly. Their bodies are often female, though their hairless heads give them a Buddha-like, androgynous dimension. What are these beings, and what are they trying to tell us?

Working in washes of ink and spray paint on paper, this Atlanta-based artist references love, yoga and gymnastics in his titles, but in every way, his creatures make these familiar things alien. For his first solo show at Sandler Hudson Gallery, Downs has created a combination of large-scale drawings on paper and smaller, tentative studies and one work painted directly onto drywall, an homage to Paul Cezanne’s “The Bathers.”

His inky washes give his drawings an evanescent, slightly surreal quality. Downs has often referenced dreams in describing his drawings and paintings, which do seem to combine filaments of reality untethered and spun into free association. His figures often feature multiple eyes, and heads, as if Downs has captured them in gestures of changing and becoming, like double exposure photographs.

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.

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,

Bottom line: A talented Atlanta artist's drawings privilege mood and gesture over a unifying theme in solo show.