Trained as an architect, Chilean-born Juan Downey (1940–1993) made his mark as a pioneering video, installation and performance artist in 1970s New York. Yet, unlike that of more famous friends, such as Gordon Matta-Clark, Downey’s work has largely disappeared from view. This retrospective—remarkably, the first in the United States—helps to resurrect his fascinating career.
The exhibition’s centerpiece, Video Trans Americas (1976), encapsulates a number of the artist’s methods and concerns. A 14-channel installation, it features disjointed black-and-white footage that Downey shot on car trips through North, Central and South America, ranging from the iconic to the prosaic: Mayan pyramids, Incan ruins, winsome Indian children, native craftspeople, political demonstrations, livestock, lots of water and dirt. The artist, a wall text informs us, saw himself as an “activating anthropologist,” but instead of revealing unseen correspondences among peoples and societies across the hemisphere, his impressionistic travelogue of images, ambient sound and voiceovers seems designed to induce a kind of delirium.
Drawings played an important role for Downey, and the show includes a wide spectrum of them, such as diagrams for electronic sculptures and performances that employed biofeedback loops; maps in which South America drifts unmoored or spirals in groovy rainbow stripes; plans for futuristic buildings such as a testicular beach house; and drawings that resemble tantric paintings, made after meditating in the Amazon jungle. Downey always rendered with an architect’s incisive line, even as his subjects became increasingly visionary and psychedelic. What a long, strange trip it must have been.—Joseph R. Wolin