Disaster Relief: David Bates’ Katrina Paintings

Steve Shapiro

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Disaster Relief: David Bates’s Katrina Paintings
Reviewed by Steve Shapiro

Disasters ask nothing of humans; catastrophe on any scale, whether natural or man-made, happens without the expected equation. The aftermath is always a realm of possibilities—some, like large-scale war, are easier to transform into art (Goya’s “Disasters of War” etchings; Picasso’s “Guernica”); others, like the Hindenburg explosion or the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, seem to exist as they are. No artistic response is made or available for healing. There is no rule of thumb when considering a disaster.

To the classic examples of disaster art—Goya’s etchings, Picasso’s painting—I nominate David Bates’s oeuvre, in pencil, charcoal, watercolor, photography and painting, in response to the Hurricane Katrina upheaval of 2005. Katrina’s total destruction will never be quantified; its aftershocks continue to this day. The artistic challenge for a disaster unfolding in real time, on TV and in so many other twenty-first century formats, is to make the art both timely and timeless.

Photographs and video are the most immediate, and many photographs, such as Debbie Fleming Caffery’s black and white pictures of the area, leap out at the viewer in the way only photography can. (Think of the image of Jack Ruby shooting a handcuffed Oswald: a painting of the same scene would lose the specific intensity.)

David Bates, an African-American born in Dallas, watched the event on TV and he says that something hit him: he understood he was witness to a tragedy of Biblical proportion—indeed, history was literally being washed away. As he began to formulate sketches from images on television and in photographs, a project on the scope of “Guernica” took hold. The forty-plus paintings and works in other mediums, at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (until August 22), is the most riveting show I can recall in months. Bates’s vision fills the Kemper’s rotunda; yet for all the sadness and ache the show records, the work is electric, alive to the idea that art is the nearest thing we have to being in someone else’s shoes.

The works are primarily portraits, with some galvanizing still lifes of streets underwater or neighborhoods ravaged (“Tennessee Street I” depicts a car tossed against a tree, with mangled junk everywhere). The show opens with sketches of faces and heads on yellow lined school paper and small photos that will be enlarged in oil on canvas later. One of the most powerful images is entitled “Mother and Child”: an oversized woman holding onto her baby rises up out of floodwater with the city behind her, like a mythic creation. Another work, of several boatmen, recalls the ferryman Charon rowing departed souls through the Underworld’s river Styx. But modern catastrophes create their own myths. In Bates’s work, while there are hints of the Pièta and other iconography (the marvelous oil portrait “The Flood, 2006-7,” of a an older black couple, is modeled after Grant Wood’s sobering “American Gothic” and feels like a new version), mostly the art is defined by itself. The portraits looking back at the viewer express everything with nothing extra needed.

Bates’s men and women have a distinctly Picassoid appearance: the Cubist set of the brow and the eyes and the nose makes for distinctive portraiture. The sitters are not alike, however. Each person, though the titles may be generic (“Katrina Portrait III”), exudes his own identity and suffering (and humanity, too). When Picasso began the sketches for what would emerge as “Guernica” he kept changing the compositions; for example, he moved the wailing women holding her child, now seen on the left, from the other side, where the writer Russell Martin believes she now has some protection from the bull. Picasso saw the work like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel artwork: as of a piece. Such works do have an impact, a laser-like drawing together of the visual and the emotional.

In Bates’s Katrina work, rather than compacting figures for an enormous singular piece, he introduces person after person after person in separate portraits in oil, watercolor and charcoal; the variety of agony—some women hold their hands to their faces in despair, some look fierce, others forlorn—extends and enlarges the anguish and the confusion. The sense of displacement in these peoples’ lives, though they are anonymous to us are no less vivid.

And when Bates does his own “Guernica”—entitled “The Storm”—he jams several dozen people into three oversize canvases: it acts like a culmination of all the individual portraits at the Kemper. Someone is wiping away a tear; another has a hand over her mouth. Each person has something about himself to catch the viewer’s eye. It brings to mind not only Picasso but also Diego Rivera’s folkloric murals of the people and the land—here, though the people, abandoned by their local and national governments, have been packed like sardines into the unhealthy, unsafe Louisiana Superdome.

No poem, Auden once wrote, ever freed anyone from a concentration camp; true, but that is no reason not to try. Art like David Bates’s Katrina portraits offer some relief from a form of extreme disaster that neither the artist nor the politician nor the spiritual leader can prevent or protect us from. The artist’s contribution may be scant, but for many people without a voice to be heard or a face to be seen it can be an act of mercy. Contrition is someone else’s business.

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