World Fine Art Professionals and their Key-Pieces, 41 – Michael Downs

On a Sunny King’s Day I saw the exhibition ‘Piecing China Together’ of Michael Downs at EAE Studio.  Some of his collages about Chinese Life, among them one big one, were hanging on the walls of the art room located along the picturesque Nieuwe Rijn in Leiden.

They weren’t rectangular, but curvy, round, stretched out, squashed. You see landscapes, houses, roads, rivers, parks,  geometrical symbols like cones, high rise buildings on a small scale. The works have titles as China Stretched, China Squashed and  The city at 3 AM.

Songzhuang Artists’ Village

Michael Downs is a true globetrotter. He was born in Skipton, England, went to the Bath Academy of Art and Design and moved in his thirties to Australia  where he was teaching and a director at the National Art School. After a while he embarked upon a long series of journeys across Asia, painting and exhibiting wherever he went. He spent considerable time in Indonesia, working first in Bali where he owns a studio, and in Yogyakarta, where he is involved in a long term project with the villagers who live on the slopes of Mount Merapi, one of the world’s most active and dangerous volcanoes.   

The last five years Michael Downs has worked for extended periods in Beijing. Now he he lives in the Songzhuang Artists’ Village, an hour east of Beijing city centre.  10.000 artists are living there, among them 23 ‘foreigners’.

Walking around the city

Michael Downs was a witness of the enormous drive by China to be the world’s largest economy. Michael Downs: ‘It has resulted in an endless disruption of everyday life and a transformation of the landscape which is unprecedented in history.’ The paintings, constructions and collages by Michael Downs reflect the order and chaos of the Chinese landscape and the surrealism of its hyper-development. In many collages found metal and torn fragments are processed.

Michael Downs: ‘I spent spent much time in Beijng, Shanghai and Kunming working on either ‘fragments’ of ‘composites’ of my work. They start from walks around a city where I take photographs, make sketches and get a general ‘feel’ of the location.  Often I make small collages  straight afterwards and subsequently I scan them  digitally  and reprint it on a huge scale on photographic paper. These are then turned back into fragments and re-collaged into the paintings.’

The paintings are based on large sheets of plywood which are ‘drawn’ with a jigsaw before I cover them with linen or photographs. These, in turn, can be re-cut info further fragments and combined with part of other paintings. This mirrors the perceptual process of moving around a Chinese city; I build up complex composites of small pieces of information which varies each time I make the  journey. Every journey is unique; every moment is singular. And all is in flux.’

Body-scaled experiments

When he was a young boy, he was interested in his relation with the landscape, Michael says. ‘I climbed rocks. I was wandering thorough the landscape.’ As a grown man he is still fascinated by it.  His landscapes are a metaphor. ’When I look at a landscape, I feel different things. It’s not only what I look at, but also what I know, and don’t know. I am interested in globalization and pollution. It is an animated form which implies fluidity, motion, change and so on. The paintings grow from a startingpoint. The relation of the human body to the painting is important. See Leonardo da Vinci’s famous work ‘The Vitruvian man’.  I love the world – with bodies. My paintings are body-scaled experiments of landscape.


Michael Downs has two key-pieces, he says. An early work and a more recent work.The early one is called ‘Chemical Sunset’ and made in 1987. He was painting more chemical sunsets  at the time. ‘This work captured everything I wanted to say. I used many materials, steel, aluminum, iron, carpet, found objects. It is an imagination of the Industrial landscape in England. It was shown in many galleries in Europe, in the Centre Pompidou. It’s my most powerfull painting. A lot of work relates to this painting.’

The second Key Piece was made in 2012 and has the title ‘Squashed Nr. 1’. It is about witnessing China’s unscaled recent history. ‘It has a frightening pace. The government is powerful, society is changing fast. People, most little people, are moved around, squashed and folded. The painting looks like an earthquake, everything is pressed. The Chinese understand what I want to say. I am very fond of this painting. It is now in the collection of a business man in Guangzhou, a city in the South of China province where one quarter of the world’s produced goods comes from.’

Painting is not dead

Michael Downs’ work is represented by numerous galleries in Asia and Australia. It found its way in public, corporate and private collections around the world. Painting is is not dead, he believes. ‘It will never die. Many artists these days have moved into new media. I believe in the direct relationship human body and art object. We respond to things in front of us. It’s very important to make objects a person can enjoy. Painting is there already thousands of years. It will also stay thousands of years.’ 




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