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Study in nature

Dallas artist draws inspiration from environment in retrospective

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Each spring, when the magnolias bloom, artist David Bates paints a still life of the white, waxy flowers.

Bates doesn't actually have a magnolia tree in the yard of his Dallas-area home. But his next door neighbors do, and they are very accommodating and don't mind at all if Bates cuts off a stem or two to take back to his studio.

The annual ritual of magnolia painting is an aesthetic checkup of sorts for the 57-year-old artist.

"It's a barometer of where I'm going with my work," Bates said recently at the Austin Museum of Art, where "From the Everyday to the Epic," a modest retrospective exhibit of his work, went on view last week. "I like to see how I'm making things differently."

He also likes to make different things. For a few years in the mid-1990s, the prolific painter didn't paint at all. He made sculpture instead, and his annual magnolia still lifes from that period are three-dimensional riffs on his semi-abstract, semi-folk art stylized paintings.

Some of Bates' magnolias — three sculptures, a painting and a print — share a stretch of the gallery in the current exhibit. The youthful, lanky, plainspoken Bates — who was born, raised and has lived in the Dallas area his entire life, except for a year in New York when he had a fellowship at the Whitney Museum of American Art — also admits a visceral fondness for the quintessential Southern flower.

"I just love the colossal size of the blossoms," he says.

While the contemporary art world has shape-shifted around him, Bates has always let instinct, not trends, lead his way. "Besides," he says, "painting is always being declared dead. I just do what has always felt right to me."

That was the case in the mid-1970s as Bates left Southern Methodist University and struck out for the Big Apple. The only child of devoted parents, Bates spent his undergraduate years developing his talent for, and interest in, visual narratives — the quirky scenes of everyday life or else the natural landscapes he adored and in which he found endless small stories.

But at the time it was the brainy austerity of conceptualism and the coolness of Pop Art that reigned. And after a year in New York, Bates returned home to Texas, where he continued to follow his own aesthetic trajectory, one more aligned with early American modernist painting or even the still-life tradition of 19th-century painters.

(Where Bates fits in with contemporary art trends still vexes the response to his work. On the occasion of Bates' solo show in 2006, New York Times critic Roberta Smith called Bates' paintings "conservative if not reactionary" but then added, "I would say that I like them against my better judgment, but in truth I just like them.")

Bold in composition, filled with vibrant colors, blocky shapes and painterly yet brawny flourishes, Bates' regionally inspired images nevertheless found a following by the mid-1980s, garnering him exhibitions and collectors. (His work can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Blanton Museum of Art, among other institutions.)

Organized by Austin Museum of Art executive director Dana Friis-Hansen, the current exhibit — Bates' first solo show in Austin — offers a selection of the artist's major and often monumentally sized paintings along with drawings and sculpture. Everything has been culled from private and institutional collections in Dallas and Austin.

Bates paints what he loves, and his early narrative paintings reveal down-home scenes of musicians, fishermen, waitresses, beer and cigarettes on a dock-side table, a man selling fireworks at a roadside stand. The dynamic patterning of forms, the flattened perspective, the familiar subject matter all bear the unmistakable influence of Southern folk art.

But Bates is also having his own private ongoing dialogue with art history.

"Folk art is a form of abstraction," he says. "To me, it has the same formal qualities as Matisse or Picasso — or Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley, for that matter."

Nature figures as Bates' ultimate theme. Fishing trips to the Grassy Lake nature preserve in Arkansas inspired about eight years of paintings for the artist, the dense, bird-filled cypress swamp — and the hunting guides who worked the swamp — spawning moody, intense landscapes that catalog with great detail the flora and fauna. After Grassy Lake, Bates re-discovered the Texas Gulf Coast, the destination of many of his childhood summer vacations.

But in 2005, Hurricane Katrina grabbed Bates' attention like no other event. A regular visitor to New Orleans (he had an almost annual gallery show there for years), Bates obsessively watched the television coverage of the storm and its immediate aftermath. He also drew obsessively, filling sketchbooks with renderings of media images.

Those drawings led to "The Storm Series," a sequence of potent and poignant paintings — some epic in scale — to which Bates continues to add. People figure prominently in the series, their anguish, their fear, their resoluteness neatly abstracted in bold forms.

"I had to do something," says Bates, explaining his artistic response to Katrina. "I couldn't just stand by. I had to create some kind of visual record of what went very wrong in New Orleans."

The stark, direct images of distressed New Orleans residents seem a far way from Bates' magnolia paintings.

Or maybe not.

Nature happens, whether benevolent and beautiful, or cruel and catastrophic. And Bates is just there to capture it in all its complex, curious fury.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'From the Everyday to the Epic: David Bates since 1982'

When: Through Jan. 31

Where: Austin Museum of Art, 823 Congress Ave.

Cost: $4-$5

Information: 495-9224, www.amoa.org

Exhibit tours: 2 p.m. Saturdays