“David Bates, Austin Museum of Art,” …might be good

David Bates

Austin Museum of Art

By Rebecca S. Cohen, …MIGHT BE GOOD

With few exceptions, the 26 paintings and sculptures by David Bates at the Austin Museum of Art represent a fine and familiar overview of the artist’s oeuvre. There are, as usual, great swathes of color—blinding white egret feathers and magnolia blossoms, umbers you swear smell of earth and decaying wood, lofty blues and fecund mid-summer greens—barely contained by black outlines that insure a controlled chaos. Bates’ subject matter remains straightforward: portraits, landscapes (moist warm swampy environs and attendant birds) and still lifes. The viewer intuits veiled references here and there to his art historical heroes such as Max Beckman and Marsden Hartley—a nod to Manet over there, perhaps, or Picasso—but really it is Bates as Bates. He feels no obligation to hurl himself toward distant horizons. This is an artist who gains ground by staying right where he is.

Self-confidence rather than stasis rules. Texas and the Gulf Coast region in which he has lived and played for most of his life have clearly shaped the wordless narrative of his paintings. The sculptures follow suit. (One imagines the artist as Aztec warrior, reaching his hand into a painting to pull out the beating heart of an image and placing it on a pedestal.) AMOA’s not-so-subtle pairing of magnolia sculpture with magnolia painting, beer and cigarettes sculpture with Mexican beer painting reinforces the obvious.

Installation view of David Bates Since 1982: From the Everyday to the Epic at Austin Museum of Art

The exhibition is organized according to subject matter. First the working guys—woodsman, fishermen, firecracker salesman, stone carver—canvases dense with physical activity. Next comes the musician’s corner wherein hangs a very large paean to Clifton Chenier, a painting awkwardly challenging the line between Bates’ sincere affection for outsider artists and his attempt, apparently, to become one. Nearby guitar-shaped constructions similarly disappoint compared to the small, perfect pitch painting of Lightnin’ Hopkins beside them. The rest of the works in the show, all borrowed from public and private Austin and Dallas collections, are similarly melodious.

Like a shimmering oasis, Bates’ paintings and sculptures featuring magnolias, landscapes and birds are hung toward the back of the museum galleries, where they dazzle the eye and sooth the spirit. Several paintings literally burst off the canvas. In some of these, Bates actually builds up the surface using wood and fabric. In others, his facility with paint is such that he simply appears to model feathers, leaves and petals with his brush.

The paintings based on the aftermath of hurricane Katrina are even more compelling. While the rest of us were watching the flood on television, Bates was sketching furiously. Later he visited New Orleans. In the end he produced roughly 60 paintings based on the plight of the people whose lives were lost or turned upside down when the levees broke. From the small screen images that caught his attention come large-scale confrontational portraits, deftly painted and filled with emotion. “I tried them smaller,” says Bates. “They just didn’t seem to get across the magnitude of a million people getting displaced. Like the dustbowl but in a week.” The Kemper Museum in Kansas City is assembling an exhibition of these paintings alone, scheduled to open in May of this coming year.

Finally, three striking works inspired by the loss of his parents, most recently his father to Alzheimer’s disease, depart from the classic Bates style. A pale portrait on canvas, a drawing of two hands on paper and a super-size sculpture of a hand constitute a quiet memorial to the artist’s father. The white and grey painting, far less controlled and more ephemeral than all of the others, speaks volumes. Translucent veils float aimlessly. A lost stare emanates from an unsettling visage. There is no frame around the canvas, just as there are no boundaries on loss.

Bates has destroyed other portraits from this series, as well as paintings from other series. He speaks about relentlessly “editing” all his work and destroying the canvases that don’t please him sufficiently. “I was at a dinner with Jim Dine,” said Bates, “and somebody asked him ‘what is your work about, and he went ‘immortality.’ They asked me later what he meant by that, and I said well, you’re going to die and all this stuff is going to be around. It’s like tombstones. It really won’t matter what sells or didn’t sell, it’s like, did you make the best tombstones you could make and leave behind before you die? That’s what I think he meant.”

And that, I think, is what Bates means to do as he carefully edits his work, refines and reconsiders intensely personal subject matter and rarely strays from the region that has shaped his narrative. This is a man who aims to exercise firm control over his own well-deserved memorial corner within the history of art one day.