Today's "book review from the past" is in fact an artist review and it isn't from the past, as David Bates is doing quite well. The first time I saw a David Bates painting was at the Whitney Biennial in 1987 where it stuck out from the conceptual art like a big red mistake-smashed thumb. I don't remember what it was called, but it depicted a HUGE square-jawed Goober in a red flannel shirt, a logger I think, or a fisherman, with giant gobs of oil paint slopped on actual canvas. He was holding a fish in each hand which looked like they came out of a radioactive pond, and Gomer seemed proud, curious, ashamed and, well...real all at the same time. I remember it making the whole place smell of paint. It was like painting had returned somehow to an art museum. In my mind still it sits between Marsden Hartley and Red Grooms and they are both looking up at it grinning. I show it here from a catalog I own, when I bailed out of my three-story walk-up, I wasn't feeling too well and left many of the books behind. But I did box up all my David Bates catalogs.
So among the new-wave and Guerrilla Girls and theorists and critics and Eurocentric noses hung this bigass chunk of solid Southern American Regional blurt. And I loved it.
I have followed his work ever since. I briefly owned a print he made from his early days in Texas, it was a splendid 6 color lithograph of his fishing guide or friend titled "Blue Heaven" and I wish I hadn't sold it two decades ago to meet a month's rent during the summer I was drying out. But things come and go.
David Bates is a long way from that show, but he hasn't changed much. There is a consistent body of goofy glorious work. He'll move from painting to wood to iron then back to canvas and they'll all look the same. He's done a ton of beautiful southern plants, each dripping sweet and fresh...his ham fists make an iris look clumsy and beautiful all at once. Who says painting should be delicate? His is honest, direct and bold as a fat loud neighbor but far from simple.
I have never figured out the relationship Bates has with folk art or primitives. The work is 100% sincere and faux nothing. While frontal and direct, it seems to come more from the type of person he is portraying than any strategy, technique or trick. Honest work by honest folks. And despite the often "over-friendly" simple things he paints, there is no satire or irony. Real is good, and for 25 years David Bates has painted real good.
It is a curious thing to stop one moment and realize you have had a "favorite artist" for two decades. It is also nice to have a small, tiny forum in which to share it. I once realized there were about only three things I have kept from my drunk days...Dylan, George Jones and David Bates. A back-handed compliment, but it is the truth. The gentleman above with the perfect guitar is a bonus, Johnny Shines, a blues singer who crooned and quivered like a bird. A few years ago I was able to go to an opening of his work and meet Bates briefly... he had moved uptown since I used to see his shows at Charles Cowles Gallery in Soho. He was kind and a gentleman but nervous in a suit. I think he would be more comfortable in a flannel shirt.
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