Equally important is a heightened energy, a wider emotional platform, notably in the self-portraits and empty chairs. He is building upon the intense Katrina Series of 2005-2007 which so poignantly expressed human vulnerability to the forces of nature, and before that, a body of lesser-known work created when he opened his art up to the profound emotions surrounding his parents' aging, illness, and passing in 2001. With works depicting his father when he was suffering from Alzheimer's, or isolated anonymous hands, he mastered a dramatically sparse, more direct expressive language that finds its way back into this show.
Two large paintings of chairs, one red, one green, highlight the ways Bates' recent openness towards process and emotion have led to increasingly compelling paintings. In Green Chair, 2011, we confront an empty Windsor chair that has been pushed into the corner. Like the sculpture that preceded it, Bates has 'built' this chair from parts that don't properly align. Multiplying its arms and legs, he produces an off-kilter, nervous energy that reverberates throughout the rest of the canvas. Try as we may to parse the space around the chair, Bates abandons any allegiance to the figure/ground relationship in favor of pure passages of activated painting below, behind, around and even within the chair.
An even more complex composition, Red Chair, 2011 nestles profile of the red ladder-back chair within the frame of a larger dark brown chair. Taut lines and blocks of layered color demarcate the foreground and right side, while the rest of the painting is a subtly modulated field of greens, grays, and tan patches and flourishes, a mysterious area that nudges the imagination to spot figurative forms, or subtle hints of movement. Here Bates uses sfumato and the past life of his painting on this canvas to allude to history, ghosts, motion, and emotion.
The haunting void in these empty chairs is transformed when he turns the mirror on himself. Three recent self-portrait panels here carry brutally abbreviated, flattened apparitions which go
to the core of our existence--the shroud of Turin comes to mind. The brutal breakdown of forms within the face is often cockeyed and incomplete. The smudgy, sickly color juxtapositions, often applied wet-into-wet, heighten the fragility. Paradoxically, the empty way he renders the eyes are stirringly intense, at once attracting and repelling, so that it's hard to look away.
There was a time at the start of his career when Bates would fill his paintings to the brim with pattern, details, and complicated narratives that enthralled viewers with their accessibility and charm. Through the twists and turns of his artistic development, Bates has realized that less might be more. He explains, "Surprisingly, by being less literal, it can leave more room up to the viewer to have an experience that is bigger, more intense, than if you had given them all the facts."
In 2011, David Bates continues his ever-ambitious work in the studio to bring his art to a new level. Linking formal experimentation to an extended emotional space, these works reward those who join him on his journey from object to image to abstraction into new territory.
All quotes are from the artist, drawn from several conversations in August 2011. The author wishes to thank David and Jan Bates, Betty Cuningham and the gallery staff, and Talley Dunn for their enthusiasm and energy behind this essay.
Dana Friis-Hansen, recently appointed Director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, has known Bates and his work since 1983. In 2009 he organized David Bates since 1982: From the Everyday to the Epic for the Austin Museum of Art, where he was Executive Director and Chief Curator from 1999-2011. Previously he served as curator at the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Nanjo and Associates, Tokyo, and the MIT List Visual Arts Center, and has published articles and exhibition catalogues internationally.
This exhibition of the recent work of David Bates would not be possible without the support of many people. Our sincere thanks go to Talley Dunn who invited us to be the New York venue for David's work and to Dana Friis-Hansen for his insightful essay in this catalogue. And, above all, our gratitude goes to David Bates for his powerful paintings, sculptures and collages which make up this, his first, exhibition with the gallery.
Photography: Kevin Todora, Cover: Aimee McElroy
Design: Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York
Catalogue © 2011 Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York
Edition of 600
ISBN 13: 978-0-9830543-2-0