David Bates

David Bates is an extremely prolific young painter. During the past few years he has produced a constant stream of work, with annual one-person shows in New York, Houston, and Dallas (his hometown). In Dallas, however, Bates has shown only graphic work in recent years, and his new paintings on view here prompted some fresh thoughts on the work.

Bates’ pictures of cowboys and “barb-que” stands might seem exotic outside this region, but in Dallas such sights are infinitely familiar, and in nearby Louisiana or Arkansas Bates’ swampy fishing scenes ring true. Although the work does not always suffer from the familiarity of the subjects, it tends to lose its quaintness and thus depends on other qualities for its principal interest.

Bates’ style of painting appears folksy, but he achieves a certain strength and vigor through the late Cubist technique of moderate fracturing. The skewed eyes of a man chopping brisket in Bodacious Bar-B-Que, 1986, and the angular, modeled planes of the face of a man smoking a cigarette in Blue Heaven, 1986, suggest a thoughtful assimilation of the history of Modern art. Bates may be painting easy subjects, but he’s doing so with city skills. There’s really no naivete in the work—Bates could be called a modern-day Georges Rouault or Bernard Buffet.

The trouble is, the country subjects and slick stylized cubism don’t really cohere in most of the pictures, leaving me wondering what Bates is really after. I don’t know whether he’s trying to win over the schooled or the unschooled audiences, but in treading the line between the two, he may ultimately lose both. A modern-art cowboy is not enough to keep anyone’s attention for long. The cuteness quickly wanes in much of the work—for example, The Snake Handler, 1986, a picture of a cowhand in a ten-gallon hat wrestling with a rattler—because Bates is playing with three kinds of nostalgia: for folk art, but without the naivete; for western art, but without the dignity which that bastardized art form still carries; and for Cubism, but without the risk-taking which that style demands. When the three aren’t integrated, as in these paintings, the artistic strategy doesn’t quite work.

Bates’ real problem may be that he’s producing too much without putting enough of himself into every one of his works. I say this because one painting in this exhibition was truly impressive, reminding me that he can transcend the easy routes his talent tends to take. Blue Heaven, a relatively small work, shows an elongated face of a black man smoking a cigarette. The title suggests the world of music, lending the subject the kind of “cool” reserve of jazz musicians. The buffoonery of Bates’ cowboy pictures is replaced in this painting by an aura of introspection, and the cubistic devices that in other works seem out of place are entirely appropriate here, for the shifting of weights and proportions succeeds in adding substance to the portrait. The reason for this may be the compatibility of the jazz context with the dissonant technique of Bates’ rendering. But the picture’s success probably also stems from what appears to be the artist’s deeper commitment to the subject. Lacking any hint of condescension or goofiness, Blue Heaven portrays its subject with an air of profound respect that is not evident in the other pictures in the show. Such depth makes me wish that Bates would paint as convincingly more often.

Susan Freudenheim