David Bates is a paradox. Based in landlocked Dallas, he appears focused on the mysteries associated with bodies of water. In an area not known for modesty, he is very low profile. His paintings reflect an eclectic mingling of styles, yet come off as boldly natural. As New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, who is as baffled by him as I am, once wrote, his canvases "bristle like carpentered objects" and "press forward with every molecule..." At a time when soulless, allegedly "cutting edge" paintings known as "zombie abstraction" are in fashion, Bates is a Texas troglodyte who once described his style as "Cro-Magnon." There may be something to that; the way he deploys his eclectic talents suggests he operates intuitively, with the instincts of a folk artist unconcerned with trends or art history. I don't know him, but by all accounts he is guided by two lifelong passions: fishing and fooling around with paint.
Preoccupied with lakes, swamps and the Gulf of Mexico around the Louisiana and Texas coast, he serves up emblematic works like The Fisherman, top left. Here we see a tropical Ernest Hemingway character, but rather than just a pictorial, or "retinal," image, something inexplicably elemental, yet subliminal, engages the senses; you can almost smell the briny air and fishy cargo. Levee Pump House, left,depicts a weathered wooden hut atop a spidery timber trestle, and the creosote is almost palpable. Some hombres tending crab traps in Port Sulphur seem fashioned from similar stuff, yet recall Orozco's gritty 1930s Mexican murals. If Bates' people and places, say, Point a la Hache, left, suggest "carpentered" layers of paint, his colorful still lifes like Mums and Lilies hark to Matisse's florid south of France period, but with more depth. Yet his simplicity can be Zen-like. In Storm, above, the ominously darkening sky, the gulls hovering close to shore, and a solitary sailboat tacking against the wind are rendered with simple, gracefully sweeping blue, gray and white arcs of pigment that evoke damp, turbulent gusts with a hints of ozone from distant lightning beyond the far horizon. ~Bookhardt / Coastal Paintings: New Works by David Bates, Through July 25, Arthur Roger Gallery, 432 Julia St. 522-1999.
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