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Review: Coastal Paintings 

New work by David Bates at Arthur Roger Gallery

David Bates is a paradox. Based in Dallas, he appears focused on the mysteries associated with bodies of water. In an area not known for modesty, he keeps a very low profile. His paintings reflect an eclectic mingling of styles, but come off as boldly natural. New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who is as baffled by him as I am, once wrote his canvases "bristle like carpentered objects" and "press forward with every molecule." At a time when soulless, allegedly cutting edge paintings known as "zombie abstraction" are in fashion, Bates is a Texas troglodyte who once described his style as "Cro-Magnon." There may be something to that; the way he deploys his eclectic talents suggests he operates intuitively, with the instincts of a folk artist unconcerned with trends or art history. I don't know him, but by all accounts Bates is guided by two lifelong passions: fishing and fooling around with paint.

Preoccupied with lakes, swamps and the Gulf of Mexico, he serves up emblematic works like The Fisherman (pictured). Here we see a tropical Ernest Hemingway character, but instead of a purely pictorial image, something elemental yet subliminal inexplicably engages the senses; you can almost smell the briny air and fishy cargo. Levee Pump House depicts a weathered wooden hut atop a spidery timber trestle, and the creosote is nearly palpable. Some men tending crab traps in Port Sulphur seem fashioned from similar stuff, but recall Jose Orozco's gritty 1930s Mexican murals. If Bates' people and places suggest "carpentered" slabs of paint, his colorful still lifes, such as Mums and Lilies, hark to Matisse's florid south of France period, but with more depth. His simplicity can be Zen-like. In Storm, the ominously darkening sky, gulls hovering close to shore and a lonely sailboat tacking against the wind are rendered with simple, gracefully sweeping blue, gray and white arcs of pigment that evoke damp, turbulent gusts of wind with a hint of ozone from distant lightning beyond the horizon.

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