The Most Successful Dallas Artist Ever
David Bates turned his back on the New York art world. Now they call his work a guilty pleasure.
By Peter Simek From D Magazine February 2014
David Bates bounces around a storage room crammed with his art at Talley Dunn Gallery. He’s a bit frazzled, for good reason. It’s November, and he has less than three months to prepare for one of the biggest exhibitions of his life, a retrospective that will be mounted simultaneously at the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. He has been fretting over drafts of the forthcoming exhibition catalog and running back and forth to his foundry in Houston to oversee the casting of new bronzes. Further throwing his life in disarray, Bates is moving his studio. In the storage room, a few blocks south of SMU, paintings cover the walls, sculptures sit on pedestals, yet more paintings and smaller sculptures fill storage racks. Much of the work is recent still lifes, mostly flowers, magnolias in particular. Bates picks up some little bronze skulls and casually tosses one into the garbage with a laugh, a self-deprecating knock on his own work.
Unlike his portraits, which often render the human figure in a virile jangle of angular and confident brushstrokes, Bates has a rounded, unassuming, almost nondescript appearance. He’s cheery and approachable, given to affecting accents when he tells stories, taking particular delight in tales of clueless curators describing his Southern landscapes and portraits of Gulf Coast fisherman hunched over dragnets.
“They’d say, ‘Ham-handed, clumsy, sort of stupid shapes and forms, Cro-Magnon drawing style, lots of big black lines,’ ” he says. “And I’m like, well, none of that sounded good, but I do agree with you.”
For someone who has managed a 35-plus-year career, the 61-year-old artist has surprisingly little patience for the lingo and pretension that typify the world of contemporary art. Rather, when Bates talks about painting, it sounds more like fishing. There’s a strategy and a process, best learned by receiving wisdom passed down through generations. At first glance, his work can look startlingly old-fashioned. Throughout his career, he has returned again and again to the most traditional forms of painting: still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. And yet it is precisely this approach that has won him a reputation as a maverick. He is the rare interpreter of flowers, sculptor of busts, and etcher of majestic birds that the art world hasn’t shunned. To the contrary, he has racked up nearly every accolade it can bestow upon an artist. He has been exhibited by major biennials, collected by the biggest museums, and acquired by important collectors. His acceptance, however, has come with a full measure of skepticism.
“In fashionable art-world circles the paintings of David Bates are considered conservative if not reactionary or, at best, guilty pleasures, if they are considered at all,” wrote the New York Times’ co-chief art critic, Roberta Smith, in 2006. “If I wanted to signal my agreement I would say that I like them against my better judgment, but in truth I just like them.”
It is easy to like Bates’ art. In fact, some of the skepticism about his work seems to spring from the fact that it is almost too easy to like Bates’ art, even without knowing much about contemporary art. It almost seems as if Bates pulled one over on the art world. His career began in New York in the late 1970s, a particularly heady time in the history of art. Then Bates turned his back on it. He returned to his hometown of Dallas, where he set about painting his birds and landscapes. Remarkably, that’s how he became the most successful artist this city has ever produced.
A four-hour drive northeast of Dallas, Grassy Lake might as well be on another planet. It’s a murky virgin cypress swamp filled with mud, muck, shrubs, and thickets. From its black waters, a thick forest of bald cypress trees rises up, each as straight as a telephone pole, with bony little knees jutting out from the trunks. Grassy Lake is not hospitable to human life, but the wetlands are fecund. Hunters and fisherman have built rickety cabins that sit on thin wooden piers driven into the muddy lake bottom. The swamp teems with bass, catfish, ducks, geese, and migrating heron and ibises. There’s little solid ground, save thin strips of sticky mud where alligators sun themselves. It is a wild and mysterious place, perhaps the closest place to Dallas that feels the farthest thing from it. For Bates, Grassy Lake is an artist’s paradise.
He first came to Grassy Lake in 1982, led here by Dallas arts patron Claude Albritton. At the time, Bates was an artist and adjunct professor at SMU, Eastfield College, El Centro, and Richland. After receiving his master of fine arts degree and studying for a year at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, he had returned to his hometown disenchanted with the money- and career-driven frenzy of New York. On weekends and during the summer, he would strike out from Dallas to places like Grassy Lake to paint, stepping into waders and slogging through the muddy waters, sketchbook in hand.
“What Grassy Lake gave me … was the understanding about how nature and art work together,” Bates told the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth curator Michael Auping in an interview. “The Cezanne-Monet-Courbet lesson in real time.”
It was an unlikely existence for a kid who grew up in suburban Garland. His father was a traveling salesman for a sportswear company. His mother had studied at the Art Institute of Chicago before settling into suburban domesticity, taking up an interest in 1950s interior design and Asian flower arrangements. When Bates was a boy, his mother brought him to art classes at the Dallas Museum of Art, where he was exposed to work by the Dallas Nine and Texas Regionalist painters such as Jerry Bywaters and Otis Dozier, artists who shunned the European stronghold on American modernism in the 1930s for vernacular landscapes of the Southwest.
“American art, the way I remember it from when I was younger, it was bold,” Bates says. “It was ‘I don’t give a shit about how y’all do it over in Europe. This is how we do it.’ ”
But Bates wasn’t a very good student. (“They didn’t have dyslexia back then,” he says. “You were just slow.”) His real passion was fishing. During the summers, Bates’ father would take the family down to the Gulf Coast, where he would roam the beaches and haunt the bait shops. But he also showed promise as a draftsman. After graduating from Garland High School, he took art classes at Eastfield Community College. His professors encouraged him to apply to SMU. He got a scholarship and studied with the painter Roger Winter. “He was the link between Bywaters, Dozier, and that stuff and me,” Bates says.
In his mature work, one can see connections between this legacy and Texas regionalism, which, like Bates’ work, drew inspiration from early Renaissance art and American folk art. In the 1970s, though, Bates hadn’t found his own style, and Dallas art was more interested in so-called Texas Funk, which blended vernacular Texas idioms with psychedelic and pop art (and included artists such as Bob “Daddy-O” Wade and the Oak Cliff 4). The artist Julian Schnabel lived in Dallas at the time, working as a line cook at The Grape before moving to New York in the 1980s and becoming one of art’s biggest stars. Schnabel had just finished studying at the Whitney Museum of American Art’s prestigious independent-study program, and he encouraged Bates to apply. The kid from Garland was surprised when he was accepted. “Later they said, ‘It’s so good you didn’t come here for an interview, brother,’ ” Bates recalls, affecting an ironic, King of the Hill-style Garland drawl. “They would have never let your ass in.”
Bates’ time in New York was intense and bewildering. In the late 1970s, painting was dead again; video, performance, text, and other conceptual-based forms reigned. The students in Bates’ class at the Whitney program, including feminist conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, visited different artists every day. “It would be Alice Neel one day and Richard Serra the next day,” Bates says. “They would all come in and tell you how to do it, and any other way to do it was fucking bullshit.”
Bates made video art and wrote performance pieces and plays. The performance artists Sylvia and Robert Whitman, whom Bates had met when they were in Dallas in 1974 as part of the DMA’s “Poets of the Cities” exhibition, gave the young artist a place to stay in New York. Bates liked the city, but after a year, the grind began to wear him down. “It was all how to get famous, how to fit in, and how to find your niche within this art world,” Bates says. “I thought, ‘This isn’t my deal.’ It was too based in what I should be doing.”
The problem was that Bates still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. He had a hunch, though, that he could figure that out back home in Dallas. “I came back, and I told Bob Murdoch, who was curator at the Dallas museum at the time, ‘Okay, man, I have a play for you. I have a performance. I have some videos,’ ” Bates says. “I was like, ‘Look, dude, I’m just trying to enlighten you with some brilliance from New York.’ ”
After returning from New York, though, Bates began to find the art that would really draw him in. He was teaching at a number of local colleges and audited a full slate of art history courses. He also met the artist and his future wife, Jan Lee McComas. McComas’ work drew from a heavy folk art influence, and that kind of work, often created by self-taught painters, rural mystics, and other outsider artists, helped reacquaint Bates with the simple pleasure and sense of play in making art.
“That’s the thing with those folk artists; they don’t care,” Bates says. “They are just taking some
Bates was set. He had a good teaching job and didn’t have to worry about selling work to pay the bills. He had time to explore the countryside and experiment with new forms and techniques. His paintings during this period mix folk motifs, like the abstract patterns of quilts, with scenes reminiscent of European primitivism, painters like Henri Rousseau and Paul Gauguin. Meanwhile, the Dallas art scene was diversifying. The institution that would become The Dallas Contemporary opened, as did the state’s first artist-run cooperative, 500x. DW Gallery, which had started as an all-female art collective, gave Bates a solo show in 1981 that created a local stir.
A year later, he discovered Grassy Lake and began painting it in earnest. Bates’ career took off. In 1983, his work was included in exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston and the New Orleans Museum of Art, and he was chosen for the 38th Corcoran Biennial in Washington, D.C., an exhibition of American painters that proved life changing. His work would be picked up by former Artforum editor Charles Cowles’ gallery in New York and purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By the end of 1984, his work was also in the collections of the Dallas Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum. Success allowed him to quit his teaching job and focus full time on painting. For the next decade, he would regularly return to Grassy Lake.
In the art publisher Phaidon’s Art USA, an anthology of American artists, Bates is represented by an image of his painting called Anhinga. It depicts a snakebird perched on a branch that bends over a watery landscape with an almost toxic glow. The bird’s long neck twists upward, pinching a tiny fish in its thin beak, holding the little critter high to soot-black clouds that gather ominously over the spiny trees of Grassy Lake. The text accompanying the image says that Bates “pictures the inhabitants of his hometown of Dallas, Texas.” For anyone who knows Dallas, the description reads like a punch line.
Bates doesn’t paint pictures of Dallas. In fact, his travels to unfamiliar locales are integral to his process. He visits places that inspire him—the swamp, the Gulf Coast—learning the lay of the land, befriending locals, accompanying fishermen on their shrimp boats, sketchbook in hand. Just as Gauguin traveled the South Pacific to watch the islanders and make paintings of their daily lives, so has Bates drawn from Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana versions of these subjects, people like the Grassy Lake fisherman Ed Walker. Flipping through Bates’ catalog, he is more likely to tell you a story about the person or the dog in the image than to go on about composition or form.
Likewise, it seems just as important to Bates that his work be understood by the people he paints. “What’s that, a painting of a beer and shrimp and cigarettes?” Bates says, affecting the accent of an imaginary Texan encountering one of his paintings. “Love it. I’ve had a shitload of that in my life. I’ll take that painting.”
In his sculpture, the use of found materials, such as cardboard, wood, and rebar, push his work toward abstraction, while taking up nuanced concepts about the use of everyday materials in art. But Bates makes light of attempts to read too much into these works. “I think 90 percent of the people would come in here and say, ‘Wait a minute, let me get this straight. This is the stupid stuff, and this is the smart stuff?’ ” he says, falling back into that exaggerated Hank Hill impersonation. “ ‘Okay, I’m just seeing a block of plaster with a little face on it. Maybe. Over here, it looks like I can see everything.’ ”
However, as much as Bates avoids intellectualism and admires the honesty and innate approach of the self-taught folk artists, he has a deep knowledge of art history, and the work of the past looms over his practice. In the corner of the storage room at Talley Dunn, there stands a sculpture of a nude woman posed with her arm arched above her head. It is an unmistakable quote from Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. It’s this engagement with the monumental artistic talents of the past that caught Nasher director Jeremy Strick’s eye.
“His historical ambitions become clear when viewed over the length of his career,” Strick says. “When he first emerged, on the one hand, there was such facility as a painter. On the other hand, the subject matter was so distinctly his own—effectively regional. And there was a relationship to folk art and folk imagery. The broader art-history ambitions weren’t as evident, but over time, he has taken on genre after genre.”
Bates has always tackled the “jazz standards” of painting—still lifes, landscapes, and portraits—but his more recent critical acclaim came when he created a series of paintings in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In these works, Bates’ naturalistic romanticism gives way to a more singular emotional plea. His works are melodramatic—almost sentimental, teetering on voyeuristic—and yet what is striking is that they play in such contrast to the more sanitized and diffused visions of New Orleans in the days after Hurricane Katrina that made it onto the television airwaves. Somehow Bates found a gap in the news cycle’s continuous bombardment of reported images, where painting could find a place to, once again, tell its own version of history.
Bates has created a space for himself as an artist. He draws heavily from folk art, but he is not a folk artist. As much as he eschews high art pretension, he is working in dialogue with the breadth of art history. “Certain artists seem to be very connected to their place,” Strick says. “Their work speaks to something of that place, but you wouldn’t qualify them as regional. There is something that is quite distinctive and personal in Bates’ work, but there’s all kinds of modernist or even postmodern elements to the way he works: the subject matter, repetition, appropriations, the use of materials. All of those things put him in the contemporary world, even if he is an artist that made a choice to come back to Dallas. That reflects a desire to preserve and nurture his own identity at some remove from the contemporary art world.”
Bates embraces his sense of place, his position on the outside. And yet he’s bemused that there is a place inside and outside art in the first place. How is it, he wonders, that the South can be loved for so many of its cultural contributions, but art, somehow, doesn’t have a place in that conversation?
“It’s always been interesting to me in the South,” he says. “They have such a culture of writers, food, music, jazz, blues—all of it comes from down there. All of that stuff is so sophisticated, and so where’s the visual art team? Well, we all picked up and moved to New York because we didn’t want to sit around here and be losers.”
The South resonates in Bates’ work, in its subjects and settings, in its charm, wit, humor, and narrative. The paintings take up subjects with similar sensitivity of folk ballads and blues songs, Faulkner novels and Horton Foote plays. It is precisely this affinity with the narrative of Southern culture that plays into Bates’ status as a semioutsider.
“The New York Times will review cooking from Louisiana, and they love going down and hearing some jazz, and will review music from Nashville, Austin,” he says, and then takes up a haughty voice of an imaginary editor. “But when it comes to ballet, symphony, or the fine arts, that’s where we stop. Now, y’all don’t know shit about that. Making ribs, whatever. But painting, dance. If you’re serious about that, you need to bring it up here. You can join the big leagues or quit. And you go, ‘Really?’ ”
Bates takes a rare pause, and then he laughs. He knows what he has done. We’re sitting surrounded by work that will soon decorate the walls of two museums. We’re flipping through a catalog that spans a career that has taken him into swamps and shrimp boats, museums and biennale pavilions alike. He had to fight through dismissiveness and ambivalence. But in the end, David Bates challenged conventional wisdom and won. Do you need to bring it up to the big leagues? Really? What big leagues are you talking about?
“I know it sounds like a loser from the flyover area, but every decade it seems a little bit more makeable,” he says, “that some guy can not show up to the party and say, ‘I’m going to have my own fucking party.’ ”