ambiguous, he continues to work, by his own admission, "within the narrative format." This inclination toward narrative has contributed to what he describes as his "fingerprint" -- muscular combinations of the figurative and expressionistic and an emphasis on the integrity of man and nature -- in paintings, drawings, and sculptures alike.

His artistic training in Texas and New York during the mid-1970s coincided with an unmistakable move toward change in the visual arts. Growing disillusionment with the exclusively formal and theoretical concerns of abstract, Minimalist, and Conceptual art incited young artists nationwide to develop alternatives for greater personal expression. This search for meaning has led Bates's generation in diverse directions -- to metaphor, narrative, and critique, into autobiographical and cultural resources, and on to the fine and vernacular arts of different times and places.

That Bates considers regional and folk expression to be as inspirational as Spanish Baroque painting and Cubist abstractions suggests a leap of imagination befitting a tall tale. Yet the eclectic nature of his sources is in keeping with his Texas heritage. Bates was born and still resides and works in Dallas, where cultural and geographical duality has informed its history as a boundary between the Southeast and the Southwest.



Although Bates has moved from the explicit to the ambiguous, he continues to work, by his own admission, "within the narrative format."


A comparable sense of duality challenged Dallas artists in the 190s, when their efforts to blend the innovations of modernism with traditional southern values and subjects produced one of the country's most notable regional schools of painting at that time. Successive generations of artists not just in Dallas but throughout the South have pursued variations on the challenges of duality, usually exploring local culture as part of a larger national, often universal, picture rather than as a merely sectional statement.

A "storied region," according to folklorist Benjamin A. Botkin, the South has historically fostered oral, literary, and visual traditions with a distinctive narrative impulse.3 Specificity of time, place, and character is often combined with a veneration of the everyday and handmade, while celebration of the eccentric, theatrical, or romantic is also prevalent.



That Bates considers regional and folk expression to be as inspirational as Spanish Baroque painting and Cubist abstractions suggests a leap of imagination befitting a tall tale.


From folk tales to personal-experience narratives, storytelling is considered one of the region's primary means of channeling art into life. In laying claim to the South's narrative legacy, Bates would undoubtedly assert that his goal is exactly the reverse -- endowing art with life.

That goal assumed greater clarity after 1979, when he renewed his interest in folk or self-taught artists, considered a wellspring of alternatives by many American artists since the 1920s. While his extensive knowledge of art history is evident, Bates views this knowledge as an inhibiting source of "cynicism and conservatism."4 Growing up in a region rich in bottle trees, hand-lettered signs, carvings, and decorated yards, he associates folk art with unfettered creativity, "exactly the opposite to everything I had been taught. . . . It was non-pretentious, totally direct, . . . done by old great characters who have maximum personal integrity, [and it was art] that seemed to be about rural subject matter a lot of the time. It was a way of abstraction that was as important to me as Picasso's abstraction."5 For Bates, then, endowing art with life has meant striving for vitality as much as allowing himself "to paint subjects that I really cared about -- finding my own place that is special to me."6

Into the 1980s Bates pursued diverse subjects -- friends, family, and the Texas landscape, as well as the state's popular culture, from barbecue restaurants to rodeos.



Specificity of time, place, and character is often combined with a veneration of the everyday and handmade, while celebration of the eccentric, theatrical, or romantic is also prevalent.


The evolution of a vigorous technique and expressive style was also evident in his figurative sculptures and paintings. So, too, was his ambition to work on a larger scale and his conscious incorporation of devices often associated with folk art, most notably emphatic patterning and an exuberant use of color and distortion. All of these elements coalesced at mid-decade, when Bates experienced an artistic breakthrough, triggered by a fishing trip to the Grassy Lake wildlife preserve in southwestern Arkansas in 1982. There he discovered "a place of strange beauty and complex compositions that changes completely from sunrise to noon. I knew I found something I couldn't learn in school or from other art and artists."7

From that encounter and numerous return visits emerged a series of drawings and paintings of the area's cypress-swamp terrain, wildlife, and inhabitants. In each, a finely tuned tension between specificity and mystery exists, the product of an abundance of detail on the one hand and a palpable sense of awe, even transport, in the presence of nature, on the other. Not surprisingly, works such as Anhinga and Four Flags Trail have been perceived as both nostalgic and visionary.



[Folk art] was non-pretentious, totally direct, . . . done by old great characters who have maximum personal integrity. . . . It was a way of abstraction that was as important to me as Picasso's abstraction."


Yet Bates has not tried to recapture a lost history or simple view of the past, nor has he pursued the incredible or imaginary. The elemental grandeur of Grassy Lake is as real as it is timeless. The elderly fishing guides featured in many of the works embody the self-sufficient dignity of a lifestyle still so vital in a particular area that it inspires admiration rather than sentimentality across generations and even among outsiders.

Bates continued to apply these insights as he discovered new places and revisited favorite locales throughout Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. In 1988 and 1989 several trips to Galveston Island, where he had fished and vacationed since childhood, reaffirmed his attraction to the "water and the people who work it, the history of the place, its hurricanes, pirates, and other lore."8



He discovered "a place of strange beauty and complex compositions that changes completely from sunrise to noon."


Soon he was painting full- and half-figure portraits of the area's commercial fishermen, still lifes featuring the Gulf of Mexico's bounty, from crabs to sheepsheads, and seascapes in which man's interaction with nature is often as prominent as the environment itself.

Standing on the Galveston beach for many years, an open-air bait shop provided the impetus for several works, including Baits and Bait Shop. In both examples, the weathered building's presence is minimal. A slice of countertop, hand-lettered signage, and folding blinds are all we see of "a place where the real folks were."9 Used to compose a tightly framed scene, however, these few details define our view, directing us to an informal still life of bait and beer, to the rugged figure of a fisherman, and to a cloud-swept vista of surf and the Gulf of Mexico beyond.

Bates has an enviable flair for making details count on various levels. The sum of the individual vignettes from foreground to background is still life, portrait, figure study, and landscape -- the principal categories in which he has always worked. A plastic bag of mullets, opened cans of a popular regional beer, and an unbuttoned shirt all convey the bait shop's atmosphere.



The elderly fishing guides featured in many of the works embody the self-sufficient dignity of a lifestyle still so vital that it inspires admiration rather than sentimentality.


Implicit also are the artist's powers of observation and self-discipline. He distilled impressions and memories, accumulated over time, in off-site preparatory drawings rather than sketching on the scene, out of deference to the fishermen who had gradually accepted him as an empathetic outsider.

In fact, the line between inside and outside is sharp and clear in these paintings. In descriptive and spatial terms, each figure occupies an interior space set against an outdoor backdrop. Symbolically, the countertop in the foreground delineates a boundary between the fisherman at home in his environment and the artist and viewer as voyeurs. Bates negotiates a relationship between the two worlds by emphasizing the hands holding the bag of bait fish in an experienced, matter-of-fact gesture, as if both he and the fisherman say, "Here, take it." Through this detail he transfers to us the insights he has gleaned from the latter's way of life.

Independent and hardworking, the men struggle to conquer nature to earn a living, yet learn to coexist with its cycles, dangers, and beauty. Like his "Grassy Lake" series, the Galveston paintings address the heroic and timeless in everyday and specific terms.



Bates has an enviable flair for making details count on various levels.


We sense the artist's respect keenly in these scenarios, which also incorporate tongue-in-cheek clues to his sense of humor. Although he refers facetiously to Baits as his namesake painting, the wordplay is hardly accidental. In Bait Shop, the insignia of a sailfish on the fisherman's hat alludes to prized prey, while his mermaid tattoo suggests a fraternal badge of popular culture as well as the sea's longstanding myths and folklore.

Bates lures us with narrative detail and mood set within a deliberate structure. In Baits and Bait Shop, the centralized figure in frontal pose is assertively engaging, the repetition of receding horizontals acting as an insistent guide to the eye. The shrimp, casting rods, and shirt in Bait Shop incorporate patterns emphasizing variations on squares and stripes that enliven the surface, as do the staccato contrasts between light and dark.



The hands [hold] the bag of bait fish in an experienced, matter-of-fact gesture, as if both he and the fisherman say, "Here, take it."


In these paintings, Bates voluntarily conjures lessons learned from diverse sources, among them Henri Matisse's sprightly goldfish paintings, Piet Mondrian's syncopated abstractions, and expressionistic portraits by Marsden Hartley and Diego Velázquez.10 Dealing with an experience and its memory as the subject of a painting, he notes, invokes "ghosts from art history every time you pick up a brush," not because his goal is a contemporary version of one or another artist's work, but because he faces comparable, even traditional, challenges on formal and expressive levels.11

In the four years separating these two paintings, Bates began making, almost exclusively, wall reliefs and freestanding sculptures. The heavily manipulated surfaces and relief-like forms in the Galveston paintings had reawakened his interest in working three-dimensionally. He also aspired to greater spontaneity than his exacting painting technique and overt narrative approach provided.



Dealing with an experience and its memory as the subject of a painting, he notes, invokes "ghosts from art history every time you pick up a brush."


Having carved, modeled, and cast works over the past two decades, he believes that sculpture often does not convey an impression of immediacy because of its materials and techniques. Bates has nonetheless chosen this quality as his goal and daringly suggests that a good test of his recent sculptures "is what you'd think of them if you found them in the woods."12

His criteria imply not just surprise, accident, and discovery, but also fragments discarded or salvaged. Since 1993, Bates has intuitively assembled all manner of scrap materials -- including foamcore, wood, paper, cardboard, and even parts of other sculptures -- "slapped together and cut apart," hot-glued here, wired there.13 Ironically, he has explored this devil-may-care approach in the highly sophisticated setting of the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington State. Once Bates resolves a combination of forms, materials, and surfaces, a master carpenter strengthens the structure. The result is a relief or freestanding object built as sturdily as handcrafted furniture.



Bates . . . daringly suggests that a good test of his recent sculptures "is what you'd think of them if you found them in the woods."


Bates has kept pieces in this rugged, original state, with or without the finishing touch of color and other markings. More often, the foundry's professional staff has prepared them for casting in aluminum or bronze. Coloring completes the transformation, whether as patinas that simulate his characteristically strong palette or in the form of drawing and painting applied by Bates himself. So faithful to every nuance of the original materials is the casting process that each work, once polychromed, has attained the teasing ambiguity of trompe l'oeil in the most tangible sense.

The first group of sculptures produced in this fashion incorporated subjects directly quoted from his paintings. Elements such as a running dog, seated figure, or floral still life can still be read descriptively, yet their translation into projecting angles and open and closed spaces has extended their formal and abstract potential.



The result is a relief or freestanding object built as sturdily as handcrafted furniture.


As his confidence in working spontaneously has grown since 1995, his ties to overtly narrative goals have noticeably loosened. Considering versions made in 1993 to be too portrait-like, Bates made a sculpture, entitled Zydeco #3, a year later. This abstract composition of randomly selected wood parts catches the spirit and rhythm of the music that so thrilled him in southern Louisiana's dance halls and bars.

Most recently, Bates has constructed heads, busts, and skeletal figures in painted plaster and steel and mounted them in relief or in the round. Examples such as Female Head #1 and Male Head #4 attain the ambiguity and immediacy that he has set his sights on. Their weighty, even clumsy, feeling appeals to him as an aspect of sculpture that too seldom is enjoyed viscerally. Their openwork forms and sharp contrasts between light and dark convey the starkness and otherworldliness of fragments. Certainly, some "ghosts" flit about as the artist alludes to Greco-Roman sculpture and Picasso's Cubist constructions as much as to African objects and Mexican Day of the Dead figures in his recent sculpture. The implication of parts and settings missing and cultures forgotten or distant, however, lends these works evocative power and grandeur.



Certainly, some "ghosts" flit about as the artist alludes to Greco-Roman sculpture and Picasso's Cubist constructions as much as to African objects and Mexican Day of the Dead figures in his recent sculpture.


They propose stories "still to be lived," but Bates will no longer complete them, whether for himself or his audience, in the interest of creating open-ended rather than concrete narratives.14 Even as he now directs his energy to the physicality of materials and processes, however, the character of these sculptures reaffirms his abiding sense of humanism.

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan


Notes

1. Bates, conversation with the author, October 1995.

2. Artist's statement, in Annette Carlozzi, 50 Texas Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in Texas (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1986), 20.

3. Simon J. Bronner, "Storytelling," in Charles Reagon Wilson and William Ferris, eds., The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 488.

4. Bates, conversation with the author, October 1995.

5. Bob Dix, "Conversation with David Bates," Shift Magazine 1, no.2 (1988): 24-25.

6. Bates, quoted in Marla Price, David Bates: Forty Paintings (Fort Worth: Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 1988), 27.

7. Ibid., 10.

8. Steven A. Nash, "David Bates Then and Now," in David Bates: Recent Works on Paper and Paintings, (San Francisco: John Berggruen Gallery, 1989), 5.

9. Bates, conversation with the author, October 1995.

10. Ibid. Bates cites the famous Velázquez portrait of Juan de Pareja in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a model for his portrait of the fisherman in Baits.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.