“Texas Artist Captures the Realism of Katrina’s Despair”, the Times-Picayune



What kind of art turns you on? Do you have a hot-blooded passion for the primitive? An enthusiasm for expressionism in extremes. Do you ardently admire Audubon wildlife prints?

"The Storm", 2005

Well here’s the thing. If you’re into any or all of the above, then David Bates, whose paintings are on display at Arthur Roger Gallery, is sure to satisfy.

Dallas born and based Bates, 53, is a much-beloved master of brash, brushy swampscapes, bird studies, weedy still-lifes and all things backwoods. At a glance his paintings appear casual, even clumsy, but just a glance doesn’t tell the whole story. Notice the sophisticated color schemes, the olives, ochres and odd oranges. Notice the carefully conceived compositions, inescapable mazes that cause your eyes to ricochet around the canvas like pinballs.

Bates, who attended Southern Methodist University and the Whitney Museum of American Art independent study program, may be brutal, but he’s equally brilliant. No wonder his paintings fetch tens of thousands and appear in museums near and far.

He’d just returned from a trip to Grassy Lake, a favorite west Arkansas cypress swamp, when we spoke by phone earlier this week. He explained that the little-used hunting preserve was the inspiration for most of his recent works. He sketches scenes from his canoe, then refines his sketches in painted studies, finally translating those studies into large-scale finished oils. Like Audubon, whom he greatly admires, he strives to capture the elemental truth of all-American birds such as the brown pelican, the roseate spoonbill, and the anhinga (a striking, snake-necked water bird), despite the splintery crudeness of his style.

Audubon prints, which were on display in his Arkansas host’s home, recently afforded Bates the opportunity to compare his field observations to those of the legendary wildlife artist. Not even Audubon, he found, captured nature perfectly.

“I’d go out and see, for instance, an anhinga out on the lake. Then I went in the house and he has an anhinga Audubon. So it was really good to see how they really look, how I remember they look and what Audubon said they look like. Cause his aren”t right either. None of them are exactly right. Then when you start painting, the chunky way you throw paint around determines what you can do.”

You’ll find some pretty fabulous passages of chunky thrown paint in canvases such as “Barn Owl II,” “Grassy Lake in Winter” and many others on display at Arthur’s. But the painting that will freeze most New Orleanians in their tracks is “Storm,” a gritty close-up group portrait of stranded Katrina victims, a topical painting unlike anything Bates has done before.

“I’ve been coming down to New Orleans for years. I love the people, the whole cultural mix, the music . . . When the storm hit I was glued to the newspapers and TV, calling people, trying to find out what was going on. I just felt so much empathy, so much a part of it even though I was so far away . . . I felt this was an amazing historical event. I followed it and found certain images of the people in the paper and on TV that were so strong, what they were going through was so strong . . . the faces in the painting are saying the same things as the faces I saw watching the event on TV in real time, a lot of pain, a lot of disappointment, a lot of anger, a lot of just loss.”

Bates said he didn’t care how his uncharacteristic post-Katrina paintings would be received; it was just something he needed to do.

“I just couldn’t let it roll by and say, ”I wonder what Paris Hilton is doing,” ” he said.