New York

David Bates, Still Life with Dogwood IV, 2011, oil on panel, 60 x 36".

David Bates, Still Life with Dogwood IV, 2011, oil on panel, 60 x 36".

David Bates

Betty Cuningham Gallery

David Bates, Still Life with Dogwood IV, 2011, oil on panel, 60 x 36".

When David Bates began to show his paintings nationally, in the early 1980s, he emerged as a regional painter, the region in question being his native Texas. A Chicago reviewer wrote of his work back then, “In their celebration of small-town sights and customs, the paintings confirm all the old Regionalist values.” Indeed, Bates did tend to concentrate on the scenes and people of Texas and the Gulf Coast, and in doing so found a niche. There was a downside, though, expressed by the same Chicago reviewer: “Bates is by no means untutored, yet the way he draws the human figure often is quite impossible. Does he intend this? Who knows? It is difficult to tell what is the result of limitations and what of strength.” The regionalist label, then, brought with it the charge of a lack of sophistication or even a crudeness, as if Bates were at best a conservative throwback and more likely a kind of folk artist, uninformed or not fully in control.

Since Bates holds an MFA and went through the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York in the late ’70s, this was an odd conclusion to come to about him, and it seemed—and still seems—to me that he is nothing if not knowing. Indeed this recent exhibition presented him as a sort of classicist, still perhaps a conservative but of a different type: a specialist not in scenes of the South and Southwest, which were essentially excluded (even though he is still fully engaged in that work, having recently painted a series on the impact of Hurricane Katrina), but in those most conventional of studio genres, the portrait and the still life. Also old-fashioned, especially today, were the many deliberate echoes of classic modernism. I thought of Picasso, van Gogh, and others in looking at these works, but the tip-off was most explicit in the paired paintings Still Life with Dogwood II, 2010–11, and Still Life with Dogwood IV, 2011, both showing tabletop arrangements of a vase with flowers, fruit, and small objects. Such setups are, of course, common in art history, but when one of the objects is a small sculpture in the classical Ariadne pose—a reclining woman with one arm lifted to her head—the reference tilts toward Matisse, whose sculpture and many pictures on the Ariadne theme made her almost a logo for him, in works ranging from the well-known Blue Nude (Souvenir of Biskra) of 1907 to the late cutouts. Matisse is also famous for paintings that show other artworks—works such as Goldfish and Sculpture and Studio with Goldfish, for example, both from 1912 and both including an Ariadne sculpture. Certainly Bates had these and related works in mind.

Bates, though, replaces Matisse’s flowing line and sense of cushioned luxe with something altogether more resistant, and rather wonderfully so: In both of the dogwood paintings but particularly in Still Life with Dogwood IV, the branches and their flowers, often delineated with patternlike lines of black, become stiff, jagged networks fitted together like jigsaws, almost comically unwelcoming to the touch while still sensual to the eye. Sunflowers and Thistles, 2010–11, recalls van Gogh, who made great paintings of both flowers; this and the knotty Oak Branches and Pear, 2010–11, in which the branches come close to an abstract mesh, heighten the feeling of dense, intricate, almost competitive interplay. There is real wit in these tense transformations of the still-life motif into something spikily vibrant.

The show also contained a group of portraits, including a set of self-portraits, and both paintings and painted-bronze sculptures of chairs. Bates has a taste for roughly geometric patches of paint bounded by straight lines, and this carried over into the chair sculptures, their elongated structures somehow both rickety and sturdy. But the heart of the show was the still lifes. The dogwood is, of course, a Texas tree, and Bates elsewhere paints the magnolia, another southern flower. Here, some notion of regionalism may come back into play, if tentatively, given Bates’s evident worldliness.

David Frankel