ART REVIEW: Yoga poses at Grizzly Grizzly, in William Downs’s surreal wall drawing

Painted directly onto the white walls of Grizzly Grizzly, William Downs’s mural drawing-slash-installation “Standing on the verge of…” delineates and describes a loopy, zany, sensuous surrealist nude scene in a landscape of low hills inspired by the artist’s stay in Questa, New Mexico, accented by thin strands of Christmas tinsel attached intermittently throughout the composition.
The bulk of “Standing of the verge of…” is taken up with uniformly bald humanoid figures, who veer from relatively cleanly delineated to semi-abstract and almost ghoulish. Exaggerated, cartoonish, they press and wrap and twist around one another, dripping into a range of yoga-inspired poses, blending into the background. Occasional shadows cast by these writhing bodies are drawn outwards, expanding into flat black vaguely-human silhouettes—haunting specters that mingle amongst the cacophonous mass, sometimes shifting from negative to positive space.
When I asked him about his process at the opening, Downs described the importance of establishing the gesture of each figure, rather than beginning with the faces. It follows, then, that any emotional effect derived from Downs’s work not from any particularly eloquent facial expressions, but from the alternating moods of tension and relaxation animating these bodies. The one clunky note in the mural takes the form of a figure with their face buried in a smartphone, a simplistic and increasingly common way to express disdain for how technology has isolated and distracted us.
Weaving in and out of the figures and landscape are long, thin strands of thorns, emerging from and reverting back into the landscape as they curl around random individual bodies, almost enveloping them like particularly itchy-looking sweaters or pants. When we spoke, Downs cited the comfort that can be found in adjusting to the texture of briars; I thought of the aphorism about grabbing nettles with intention rather than trying to avoid getting pricked by brushing against them too lightly.

Thematically, Downs’s composition references Hieronymous Bosch (whom Downs explicitly cited in our conversation), with the narrow black-on-white palette and vivid sense of motion recalling William Kentridge. In contrast, the way the figures are choreographed in certain sections of the mural, their interlocking bodies almost symmetrical before simply-defined naked hills and ground, almost recalls the perfect balance of Italian Renaissance compositions. With the accurately-drawn yoga poses, the imagery of thorns, and the white negative space of stigmata in the palms of the some of the flat black figures, references to religion abound in ways both obvious and more subtle. The Bosch-esque quality of the composition makes it unclear, though, whether Downs has created a paradisiacal idyll or a kind of purgatory. Are the figures happy, suffering, or merely enduring?
I imagine that being alone with Downs’s installation-slash-drawing would be a totally different experience from seeing it come alive at a bustling opening event. In a quieter immediate setting, the thin strands of tinsel hanging periodically from Downs’s swirling, irresistible tangle of bodies might come across as extraneous. Yet when Grizzly Grizzly’s narrow room fills with a revolving cluster of visitors who take their time examining every brushstroke before darting across the room to look at something else, the tinsel rustles and sways in the breeze created by their bodies in motion. It’s as if the negative space left by the viewers as they move about the space becomes a part of the composition itself. And the final act of participation in “Standing on the verge of…” will come when it’s time to move onto the next show, when members of Grizzly Grizzly will whitewash the walls once more, burying his contribution into the history of the room.