David Bates Portraits of Flowers

For this exhibition, Bates focuses upon the subject of still life with twenty-four paintings straight from the artist’s studio.  Together the paintings transform the gallery space with color and vitality, as they seem to defy their supposed genre.  “I don’t really think of them as still lifes so much as portraits of flowers,” Bates said in a recent interview. This categorization seems much more fitting, as the paintings are far from “still.” They seem to pulse with energy and life and each painting captures something of the character of the flowers it depicts - like the way Christmas rose stems seem to coil like snakes, suggesting their poisonous nature, or the way that petals of a dahlia become translucent as they wilt. Such details demonstrate Bates’ continuing interest in capturing the essence of a subject, while working through questions of composition and representation - striking a balance between what is owed to the subject, what is allowed by the medium, what is desired by the artist, and what is expected by the viewer.

 

Still life has often served as something of a proving ground for formal concerns in Bates’ work. Throughout his career, Bates has painted at least one magnolia each year as a barometer of his artistic development. Still life - especially floral still life - has been a constant of his output. For Bates, the floral still life is not only an art historical trope, but a deeply personal subject tied to memories of his mother, who studied illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago and encouraged his interest in art and art history from a very young age. Therefore, the connections between his mother, art history, and the floral still life wend together very naturally in Bates’ mind. To say that these paintings are intimate and contemplative does not negate their intellectual qualities or their numerous references to the history of art.

 

The recent and fervent return to the subject was prompted by a 2014 exhibition of French still life painting organized by the Dallas Museum of Art. Inspired by the exhibition, Bates bought the exhibition catalogue which he features in his painting, Chrysanthemums & Books, 2017. In addition to the ample visual material found in the catalogue, Bates continues to reflect upon a quotation by Albert Samain: “There are strange evenings when flowers have a soul.”  Bates has investigated this idea in several paintings, including Night Flowers II, 2016, which features in the exhibition. This breathtaking piece depicts a floral arrangement that appears to glow in a moonlit room. The decisions of lighting and color in this piece are a slight departure from the bright canvases that surround it, but the relative restraint makes the colors within this composition appear all the more brilliant and rich. Bates so perfectly describes lilies in various states of bloom that one can almost smell them, but verisimilitude is not the goal of this painting. The formal qualities of the composition are Bates’ clear focus, and the viewer can see the ways he plays with representation to achieve an overall effect. The incredible detail of the lilies and the vase is balanced by the graphic forms of eucalyptus and chrysanthemums.

 

Bates enjoys the freedom that the genre affords. For example, Fall Roses, 2017 depicts a floral arrangement painted from life in the artist’s studio, against a backdrop of an imagined coastal sunrise.  In his depiction of the flowers, Bates playfully oscillates the level of representation from the relatively realistic rendering of the rose buds, to the bold hatching used to create depth in the open blooms. The painting declares its materiality, and is, in many ways, a celebration of the act of painting and the genre of still life. The works in the present exhibition represent the height of contemporary floral still life painting and are a worthy addition to both Bates’ larger oeuvre and to the ongoing legacy of this important genre.

 

A native of Dallas, David Bates is widely recognized as one of Texas’ most acclaimed artists. After receiving a B.F.A degree from Southern Methodist University in 1975, he participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Independent Study Program before returning to SMU to earn his M.F.A in 1978. Shortly after completing graduate school, Bates’ paintings were featured in several important group exhibitions that travelled to museums around the country, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art; the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston.  In 1987, Bates’ work was included in the prestigious Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and in 1988, Bates was honored with a traveling exhibition organized by the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Since then, Bates’ work has been featured in a number of important exhibitions including a recent joint retrospective exhibition organized by the Nasher Sculpture Center and the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in 2014. Bates’ work is represented in the permanent collections of more than forty museums across the country, including the Dallas Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Whitney Museum of American Art; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, Lincoln, Nebraska, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the El Paso Museum of Art; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The artist currently lives and works in Dallas, Texas.