“The Faces of Loss and Betrayal,” The Kansas City Star

The Faces of Loss and Betrayal: David Bates: The Katrina Paintings


If a distinction exists between art and social and political commentary, it vanishes in the current exhibit at the Kemper Museum, “David Bates: The Katrina Paintings.”

Like most Americans, Bates watched and was moved by the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast five years ago as it unfolded on TV. He began sketching as he watched. His early drawings – some on plain, lined writing paper – became the seeds of the extensive series of paintings he created over the next three years, and which can now be viewed at the Kemper.

Storm Triptych (panel 1), 2005

Dozens upon dozens of faces confront viewers – filled with sorrow, loss, tragedy, and above all a sense of betrayal. Many cover their faces with hands that been worn and calloused in lifetimes of work.

The paintings are large, imposing. In the gallery you find yourself surrounded by people who have been victimized not only by nature’s force, but by the country’s failure to respond with timely assistance – and for some, a failure even to empathize with the victims. Most of the paintings depict African-Americans. The multitude of faces crowded into The Storm Triptych remind us also of how eager some were to blame the victims, how in fact, the events even became an excuse to terrorize them.

It is perhaps appropriate that Bates’s streetscapes are painted in smaller scale than the portraits. The vacant, flooded neighborhoods, with bent telephone poles, roofs torn away, wreckage everywhere form a backdrop for the awful human devastation.

Bates achieves a remarkable realism with large, bold strokes that represent his subjects with compassion and depth.

The show resonates with urgency, with outrage – and with a sense that we have allowed things to get out of control in ways that have less to do with natural events than how we respond to crisis. In doing so, it questions the nature of our compassion. In light of recent events in the Gulf, the exhibit further elevates those doubts and leaves one to wonder if the political will exists to change course from the devastating path we have taken.