“David Bates Since 1982: From Everyday To Epic,” The Austin Chronicle

David Bates Since 1982: From Everyday To Epic


Those who love to be out in nature won’t mind going inside the Austin Museum of Art to see David Bates Since 1982: From the Everyday to the Epic. In large paintings such as The Rookery, we’re encompassed by the cacophony of the bird world. The swampy landscape is devoid of people, glorious and dangerous: A snake eyes a bird in the marshes, the trail of alligators swimming registers. But the sounds and riot of a burgeoning natural world hold sway. The life force of the swamp just explodes – there sits a frog, there a woodpecker pounding out its tune, water lilies bloom, egrets nest – yet it is all under a foreboding sky that one hardly notices.

We haven’t seen much of Bates’ art in Austin in a while, so it is great to see nearly three decades in the evolution of this Texas artist laid out in rooms that encapsulate chapters in his story. Organized by AMOA Director Dana Friis-Hansen, this core sample of Bates’ work goes back 27 years and focuses on the faux-naive or folk-inspired paintings for which he is deservedly well-known, along with his forays into sculpture.

While Friis-Hansen has long admired Bates’ work, one facet that drew him to organizing the show was the Katrina paintings. For Friis-Hansen, Bates is a “talented and interesting painter, but his current work is spectacular.” The show is organized to introduce Bates’ evolution from work that focused on the quotidian as subject matter – Gulf Coast scenes and paeans to people who influenced him, such as the folk artist William Edmondson or the painter’s father – through to the Katrina series, which now carries an even larger resonance in the wake of Haiti’s recent disaster. Friis-Hansen notes that with the Katrina paintings, Bates is “adding to the dialogue, not just following trends. It is about what art can tell us about experiencing the world.”

In essence, for 30 years, Bates has been creating a personal cosmology that embodies the everyday and has grown to include the epic. Perhaps Bates wouldn’t have done the Katrina series if he had not experienced losing his parents in old age. We see Bates’ father in a bookend experience: hale and hearty in Woodcutter and lost to the foggy throes of Alzheimer’s in W.M. 1998-2001.

In Woodcutter, as in many of the paintings, the large scale fills our vision, placing us nowhere but there. The up-tilted, orangey-brown earth glows warm from sunlight we feel but don’t see and jauntily presents the image to us like a bouquet. The woodcutter is surrounded by a view of the edge of woods, a cabin, and a pile of the day’s labor. Tree rings in every imaginable form abound in the stack of logs the satisfied woodcutter has produced, and they seem to be there, along with the plaid shirt on the happy woodcutter, to create a riot of pattern that, though familiar, you haven’t seen in nature quite that way before. Nor have you spied a shirt like that in any L.L. Bean catalog – its pattern reflecting the windows of a house more than a checkered work shirt. Yet Bates’ patterns, throughout the show, are specific, familiar, and recognizable.

We see the artist’s father again near the end of the show, just before the Katrina paintings, yet one would not connect this portrait with the woodcutter. The once strong and vibrant man is painted in grays and broken lines, the boundaries between his brain and the world completely eroded. He is there, and he is dissolving before our eyes.

Each of these paintings is a tree-ring time capsule in the artist’s journey. The center of the exhibit shows Bates wrestling with what seems to be a dead end in his painting style – as in the sculpture Man With Snake II, which depicts a man wrestling with a lively snake. Bates turned to sculpture to crack his art open, and his paintings became richer, deeper, and more complex spatially. As I leave the show, I walk between The Sculptor, a painting of the folk artist William Edmondson carving his art as well as gravestones, and the life-affirming Woodcutter. It is easy but sobering to leave the show thinking that life, like art, is in the making.