“David Bates: Transforming Identities,” New Orleans Art Review

Transforming Identities

by Karl F. Volkmar, NEW ORLEANS ART REVIEW  


“WE HAVE FLOWERS and fragrances every season of the year!” is what I tell friends when they ask me what it is like to live in Louisiana. And that is how I console myself when passing through a phase of discontent every once in a while. Crowns of red and white camellia blossoms, pullulating wisteria fronds, syrupy sweet lemon scent of magnolias, clusters of crepe myrtle blossoms bursting along an arching branch mingled with delicate roses and lobed ginger flowers arise from memory to remind me just how delightful it can be to live here. We humans use the shapes and scents of flowers to symbolize delicate emotions and commemorate events; and in the past roses and lilies and hyacinths have been used to represent certain ideas and events and emotional states. For the Netherlands still life painters of the seventeenth century bouquets subtly suggest the vanity of attachment to that which does not last- The gift of a bouquet expresses the satisfaction of an erstwhile lover in Manet’s Olympia. Lilies rise from blood that drains from the severed head of John the Baptist in Beardsley’s Salome. Van Gogh paints a vase of sunflowers in homage to his relationship with Gauguin and the slow writhing of irises to express his deepest feelings and thinking.

And now we can add the flowers and leaves and fruit- laden branches of David Bates to this list. If the editor had told me in advance that he wanted me to write about an artist who created works about flowers I would have crossed my fingers before saying yes. Flowers? How passé! What self-respecting artist would make flowers the subject of his or her art in this postmodern day and age?

"Sunflowers II", 2001

Wow! I was quietly surprised by what I saw when I walked through the door of the Arthur Roger Gallery Saturday morning! Like the way a modem automobile bumper contact with a wall and then proceeds, slowly absorbing the shock of the impact as the hydraulic cylinders compress before bringing the car to a gentle halt. The gentleness is misleading for physics informs us that the energy is evenly distributed and passed on, not just reduced. A room full of large flowers and plants hanging on the wall and standing on the floor – paintings, collages, reliefs, and freestanding forms – terrestrial descendants of the cosmic effect of gamma rays on man in the moon marigolds brought into being with the physical exuberance of Bates’ handling of materials as creative energy reproduces the vital energy of plants and flowers.

Viscous impastos of paint as ineluctable as the dark green succulence within an aloe leaf are applied with a sureness of touch to define and outline the shapes of petals and berries and stems and leaves. Sensuous ectoplasmic surfaces glisten with turgid force. Leaf shapes drawn with a band saw jut from pistils and stems. This putting of pieces together in collage raises the juxtaposition of unexpected images, materials, and formal elements above the level of a method of thinking to the simulation of the phenomena of growth itself. Positioning and pressing and pushing and gluing reproduce the growing of leaves and stems as they emerge and enlarge.

As I walked from one work to the next and turned to look at the painting I had just viewed, I became involved in another game. The painting was actually a relief! From this revealing angle I could see that what I had imagined was a painting had been constructed using wooden leaves. I changed my position so that I stood directly in front of the relief and, yes, it had become a painting again. At first I felt a flush of delight in having been fooled even when I knew the real nature of what I had seen. Trompe l’oej! with a new twist! We are familiar with two dimensional painting creating an illusion of three dimensional reliefs. But a relief construction disguised as a painting? Collage and synthetic cubism have set the precedent. But in Bates’ work the artist has added a new dimension to the “fool-the-eye” conceit. As I walk from one side to the other, passing in front each time, and peering into the dark spaces where the pieces of wood are joined, I feel as if I were peering into the body of an animal being operated on in the veterinary office. Here on display is the anatomy of the work and of the game the artist”s creative trope plays with my mind. And that increases my delight as I willingly suspend disbelief and surrender to art.

The free-standing Sunflowers brings back fond memories from my youth, of walking through fields of dried corn in the fall, among desiccated remains of hollyhocks or tall sunflowers, and feeling the scratchy leaves brush against my skin. The texture of the metal sheets used to construct this work simulates the very substance of the plant. The mass of the bronze used to cast Magnolia Branch mimics the heaviness of the magnolia branch. Knowing the process by which castings are made I imagine the sculptor shaping the dark wax the color of dark bronze and the density and texture of magnolia leaves and flowers and branches — materials simulating the substance as well as the appearance of that which they represent in the nature of trompe l’ oei! – a lesson that first appeared in the paintings of Courbet.

Ambiguous and aesthetically pleasing and intellectually interesting interplays among appearance, substance, and construction appear in another form in several pieces hanging on the walls. When viewed from the front they seem to be paintings. From the side they are obviously constructions or castings as the high relief becomes obvious. But even this is misleading as some parts stand free of the ground and are attached only at their extremities. In a curious way I imagine myself shrinking in size as if I had eaten a piece from the wrong/right side of the mushroom and wandering through a fabulous, surreal Van-Goghesque landscape like a character in Kurosawa’s Dreams. Only when one reads the description of the piece does one realize that the artist has first made castings in aluminum or bronze before painting them to disguise their nature.