In an article published in Fort Worth Star Telegram, David Bates commented: “Regionalism is a nasty comment. It makes art seem small-minded. There is no difference between what I do or what Marsden Hartley or Diebenkorn did. What I do couldn’t be more American. You can look at German art as regional, Chinese art as regional, but it’s all art. Sometimes you want Mexican food, other times Italian. And every once in a while you want some grits and barbecue.”
The retrospective exhibition that spans two museums (Fort Worth Modern Museum and Nasher Sculpture Center) in Dallas and Fort Worth proves that his celebrated regional stature has been matched with a measurable national level of recognition. The Met, Whitney, Smithsonian, National Gallery of Art have all loaned from their collection works by Bates for the exhibition. More, as gallery labels indicate, come from private hands.
No doubt that Dallasites like their grits and barbecue more.
Regionalism has roots. William Gerdts, in his three-volume book “Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting 1710-1920,” has intentionally excluded artists from New York, Boston and the Philadelphia area. When Judith O’Toole, the curator at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, mounted an exhibition for Scalp Level painters, she commented these areas were “where the dealers were, where the museums were built, where there was a more international society, where the critics were who would write about their work. That infrastructure came together to make them the national school.”
But it is also interesting to notice that Gerdtz did not extend his book beyond between-war periods. Geographic boundary is no longer an obstacle for artists nowadays. Texas is just a three hour flight from New York, after all. And if it is still not fast enough, just send a tweet. So would art critics and historians stop using regionalism in describing Texas Art? Or should we just drop the word Texas when introducing any artist in Texas?
True as Bates inserted, creating art is about individualism. But the art world is an ecosystem of artists, patrons, galleries and critics. Once artworks leave artists’ studios, they assume the course of their own. The million-dollar question — how they will be perceived and subsequently defined or whether they will climb up the echelon of art market cannot be answered by a formula. Still they can be examined within a large frame of the time, locality (big or small) plus or minus some wisdom or stupidity of our own.
Regionalism, in particular, can be further dissected into two sub-areas: regional characters and regional preference.
Regional characters are of artists’ own propensity. The immense knowledge in art history has smoothed out edges of regional styles. Texas, with its enormous physical presence, has no single coherent style.
Yet, the infinite horizon of the west, the rich earth tones of the north, or the impenetrable torrent of the Gulf coast, have influenced the people who live through the land. Bates’ most celebrated series, capturing the hardship, commonality and eccentricity of lives along the Gulf Coast, are distillation of personal experience that many can echo. The Grassy Lake series, most from his early career, may seem bizarre at the first sight. Largely, the series synthesize a primeval beauty into a complex visual language based on his personal stories. Viewers are often confronted with direct narratives and a within-the-scene perspective, like listening to a first-hand story of a friend from out of his recent exotic trip. That immediacy of tangible feelings subsequently afflicts viewers with fear and awe that once was incited in the artist himself.
Regional preference, on the other hand, won’t comply to idiosyncratic artists alone. It is by and large, determined by the other side of the supply-demand equation — collectors, galleries and critics. Collectively, the southwest has a sweet tooth penchant for realism of regional flavors. The best words that have been used to describe Texas Art is from Richard Brettell’s essay for book about the Barrett Collection — Provincial Cosmopolitanism. North Texas, with a strong root in Texas regionalism, tends more toward narratives with bold patterns, be it a hustle-bustle Parisian street scene from Edouard Cortes, or a Bate’s flower painting. True, that there are abundant Texas artists in abstraction or a minimalistic style who have won acclaims from collectors and critics alike; and that is what makes contemporary Texas Art interesting. However, a hypothetical question cannot be ignored if we set to fundamentally understand the interplay between Bates and regional preference — What if Bates had decided to stay in New York City and presented his Glassy Lake series to the critics in the Big Apple?
In D-magazine, Bates is touted as the most successful painter in Dallas. Ironically, Dallas can provide the deep-pocketed patrons and loyal followers; but not the kind of landscape or lifestyle that the artist has strived to capture. In almost all of Bates’ works, he has avoided painting Texas as being Texas now — a booming economy with diverse industries, a disparate population with super rich and overcrowded poor, and a sea of highways featuring restless monotonicity. In these nostalgia images, Texans may resonate with a sense of lost innocence.
In that matter, New Yorkers, having lived in a cramped space within a forest of concrete skyscrapers, would hardly know.