Houston

David Bates

Texas Gallery

David Bates’ bucolic subjects are not the loaded or melodramatic stuff typical of current painting. In Fall Fire, 1984, for example, a young man wearing a brimmed hat, a sleeveless sweater, and Hush Puppies rests on freshly raked grass, contemplating a small pile of burning leaves and the local color. Beside him lies his black and white collie, a retrieved stick between the dog’s paws. A red-handled rake leans against the same tree as the contemplative young man. Nothing untoward occurs here, nothing out of joint. No art-historical allusions present themselves, save, perhaps, the eccentrically cubistic fire and smoke, which rise like a late-Picasso sculpture along the left edge of the painting. That resemblance, however, seems more something we impute to the work than an intentional sign address ing the artist’s sources.

In this modest exhibition of 17 paintings and two drawings the large canvases like Fall Fire made the most effective claim on our attention. These clearly conceived paintings rely on the successful articulation of a dual sensibility. Fundamental to the identity of the work is Bates’ long-standing affinity for the forthrightness and populist motifs of folk art; but he also possesses an esthetic astuteness, an art-smartness we associate with survival in the streets and alleys of an urbane art world, which potentially contradicts the homey thematics and plainspoken forms of ingenuous art. To link rough innocence with acquired sophistication is not unknown, of course, especially in America.

Naive style may serve as a palliative against the viral elitism of high art, but Bates’ work is not an instance of appropriation as prescription. His relation to the guileless “folk” artist is one of shared intentions: a deep admiration for the sturdy and prodigious world of the everyday, and a determination to match that world stroke for stroke. By this we mean to suggest a mutuality or equivalency wherein the mastery of Bates’ work as an artist achieves parity with the active, material world from which it derives.

For those who unhesitantly assign transcendent value to the realm of art, this may appear an odd way of putting things; but Butchering the Hog, 1984, one of the most persistently effective paintings in the show, demonstrates just such an equation. With broad, sanguine gestures Bates depicts the skillful labor of a butcher cutting open a hog’s underside to remove its organs as it hangs splayed from a rafter, a chain clamped around one back leg. The paint ing itself may be understood as a reenactment of sorts performed by the painter in the manner and habit of his own skill or labor. In effect, Bates the observer (sometimes a parodic one) functions as a transducer, carrying energy from one domain to another.

All his works are direct, well constructed, bluntly simplified to the edge of caricature, and laconically descriptive in their selective detail. An exaggerated angularity in these new works emphasizes the paintings’ plainly visible structures while at the same time revealing Bates’ schooling in the pictorial methods of early Modernism. Here he separates himself from the naive vision, which invariably leads without delay to its subject. Instead he makes the topology of the painting conspicuous—not to disclose the secret subject of the work, or as an esthetic fondling of form, but rather as a pragmatic choice. This orientation situates Bates in a noncategorical zone where he is able to identify and sustain an equilibrium between the palpable world of ordinary human activity, which amazes and amuses him, and the admirable business of painting, which if left to its devices will slip so easily into its own rarefied, panesthetic space.

Ed Hill and Suzanne Bloom