“Remembering Katrina by Forgetting the Politics, A Review of David Bates: The Katrina Paintings,” Review

Remembering Katrina by Forgetting the Politics

A Review of David Bates: The Katrina Paintings

By Sarah Jesse, REVIEW 

It has been almost five years since Hurricane Katrina, and the tragedy is still a raw and dangerous subject for an artist to tackle. Complicating the matter is the role race and class played in both prevention of and recovery from the disaster. Focus on the suffering, and you are construed as exploitative — but emphasizing endless positivity brands you as naïve. In his exhibition of paintings and works on paper at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, David Bates successfully navigates these complexities by downplaying the politics and maintaining objectivity. By focusing on the diverse experiences of the individuals involved in Katrina, Bates exposes the collateral damage of the storm without pointing fingers or presenting a single narrative.

"Elysian Fields Avenue," 2007 Photo: Bruce Mathews, courtesy of the museum

Installation view of “David Bates: The Katrina Paintings,” on view at Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (May 21–August 22, 2010).

Given the charged subject, it’s easy to overlook Bates’s technical proficiency. His trademark dark outline imbues the paintings with directness reminiscent of Marsden Hartley. The thick daubs of paint are more exaggerated than van Gogh’s and beckon the viewer to look closer at the work, as does Bates’s unlikely color combinations. Unless up close, you wouldn’t guess the skin tones of the subjects are comprised of skillfully blended greens, blues, burgundies, and browns. These formal elements enhance the viewing experience by rewarding those who spend time with the work.

detail "Saints" triptych, 2007 Image courtesy of the museum

The Gulf Coast and its people have been longtime muses for Bates. The geographical distance between his home in Dallas, Texas, and the main disaster areas required Bates to alter his normal painting method. Since New Orleans was locked down during the flooding, Bates was forced to use mediated images via television rather than direct observation. This initial separation between the artist and subject allowed him to fuse objectivity into the work. Though he can’t empathize with the victims’ situations, Bates channels their diverse stories relayed in the media with intimate portraits and by cataloging the physical destruction the storm wrought upon the area.

Bates’s depictions of a city in ruin with flooded streets, overturned cars, and collapsed homes immediately corner your attention. One of the most striking paintings, Land Fall, captures the violent energy of the storm by depicting a solitary structure behind raging waters with slates of wood breaking away from the building. Different in tone is Elysian Fields Avenue, which portrays a woman sitting on the porch of a bright pink house while everything in front of her is submerged in water. The painting’s mood is calm and pensive, reminding the viewer that the storm’s impact varied among individuals. Both paintings provide a context for the spectrum of emotions depicted in the portraits.

Though the expressions of the sitters vary, the religious references embedded in the portraits unite them. The triptych, Saints, consisting of a large painting of a woman flanked by two portraits of men, includes many layers of symbolism. While the woman’s despair is evident in her posture, the men appear stoic — except for their bloodshot eyes. The title of the work plays on the multiple meanings of the word “saint.” It could signify the martyrdom of a holy person or reference community pride for the city’s National Football League team, as one man dons a hat emblazoned with the fleur-de-lis from the team’s logo. In addition, by utilizing the triptych format common to art history in the form of altar pieces, as well as the monumental-sized canvases and halo-like shadows surrounding the figures, Bates elevates these subjects to a level worthy of worship. They are no longer victims, but survivors.

While Bates minimizes the hot-button issue of discrimination by highlighting the individual experiences of the disaster, he doesn’t altogether avoid it. For instance, the upside-down cross painted on the forehead of the male figure in The Flood hints at a loss of faith, but Bates neither validates nor ignores that sentiment. The strength of the exhibition lies in the artist’s ability to set aside any personal agenda. As a result, he creates a body of work that deals more with universal themes related to humanity than muddy politics.