New York

David Bates

Charles Cowles Gallery

Although David Bates has been primarily known for his folk art-inspired paintings of life in the American Southwest, in this show he integrates painting into a three-dimensional format—largely figurative sculptures and wall reliefs, in plaster, wood, bronze, and mixed media, featuring bright, jazzy colors and textures and caricaturish renderings. Bates sets new formal and technical challenges for himself in creating an engagingly loopy, hybrid art form that suggests a meeting between Picasso’s sculpture and the brush of a folk artist. His alliance of folk art and Cubism is clever: Cubism evolved, after all, from another form of “primitive” art, and Picasso in particular maintained a lifelong interest in both caricature and sculpture as well as in painting.

Bates’ gestures are not necessarily original: he is not the first to paint sculptures, nor are his caricatured figures or use of roughly hewn materials particularly new (the work recalls similar three-dimensional excursions by Georg Baselitz, Alex Katz, and Marisol, and Bates’ eye-fooling use of cast bronze to create works that look like wood assemblages recalls the ’60s playfulness of Jasper Johns’ cast Ballantine cans). What is new, however, is the attempt to transpose the brightness and pizzazz of folk art onto something more closely allied with the Modernist canon—even something as seemingly moribund as Cubist and proto-Cubist sculpture. Bates seems more interested in synthesis—“low” and “high,” “folk” and “avant-garde,” homegrown American and European-influenced—than in innovation.

If the show is ultimately less than satisfying, it’s not for lack of good painting or accomplished sculpture. Some of the individual works are delightful: the bright Man with Pipe #3, 1994–95, for instance, features lush contrasts of paint texture and pattern (a smooth gray curlicue of pipe smoke, a head in distressed-surface cobalt blue, and a jacket in broad, erratic red, yellow, and white plaid) while playing with the paradoxical notion of a scrap-wood assemblage cast in luxurious bronze. Still, as a whole, the works in the show have a sameness and eventual predictability. Female Head #1, 1995, Male Head #1, 1995, and Male Head #3, 1995, seem almost redundant: painted plaster and steel, the heads supported by armatures, each neither portrait nor caricature so much as a primitivist monolith rendered in 3-D impasto. Of course, Bates’ project seems relatively modest in comparison with some of the artists his work evokes. While Picasso’s Cubism was a revolutionary challenge of form and thought and Baselitz’s work contains a frightening narrative agenda, Bates’ work, however charming, aims for, and achieves, substantially less.

Justin Spring