Before you see the first image from David Bates: The Katrina Paintings at the Knoxville Museum of Art, you’ll see another, older Bates’ painting from 1989. Titled “Blacktip Shark,” the painting is from the KMA’s permanent collection, and it lays out in bold lines, and more than a couple of blues, fishermen—one barrel-chested, square-jawed, blue-eyed icon of a man holding his impressive catch. Folky, big, and absurdly masculine, “Blacktip Shark” points to expanse, bounty, and man’s supremacy, and provides a rather garish contrast, hanging as it does above the steps you ascend to get to the Katrina exhibition, a collection of paintings Bates completed over two years following the hurricane that devastated New Orleans.
What you see inside is overwhelming, vulnerable, and far less white. Not afraid to get right to the point, upon entering the gallery, you’re faced with the biggest piece in the exhibition, “The Storm” triptych in which the canvases provide around 21 feet of African-American faces, waiting for help, projecting more anger than sadness. It’s the least stylized of any of the many portraits, but it presents Bates’ thesis for the show—a striking crowd of people with bags beneath their eyes and both literally and figuratively long faces. Face after face after face appears, but with enough variation to be recognized as individuals, and the sort of details that indicate universality, such as eyeglasses, cross necklaces, track jackets, and a wedding ring.
Backing up, on the wall at the entrance of the gallery are nine small, brightly colored portraits, the beginnings of what would become The Katrina Paintings, and the watercolor-and-charcoal “Katrina Portrait” series (numbered I-IX) that reveals yet another stage of Bates’ work. These details and studies seem important to recognize, as Bates, a resident of Texas, wasn’t in New Orleans when the storm occurred, and therefore painted early on from images he saw on television and in newspapers. These early attempts and sketches also seek to highlight the emotional distance that potentially remains when viewing images from the media, even ones as tragic and shocking as those available during the floods.
To cover that distance, Bates starts small and works larger as he eventually captures emotions more than people, and it’s the even larger oil portraits that provide the most compelling work in the gallery. Bates may not be an adventurous painter (his oeuvre includes such descriptive titles as “Magnolia and Lemon (Red) 1999-2006”), but he’s a good one. His dark lines can cut deep, and when he reaches portraits such as “Weeping Woman I” and the portrait triptych “Saints,” with skin and background painted alike in a middle brown, his strokes, too, increase in size, while streaks of green and red in the figures’ features create depth and warmth. The series in this style are few, but are dramatic and profound.
Elsewhere, in brighter tones with thicker paint layers, “The Flood” shows a man holding his devastated wife, cradling her face in her hands. The composition and stoicism, though here breaking, brings to mind “American Gothic,” a work so endlessly parodied, it hits something of an odd note among the portraits of such gravity. But Bates is adept at working the fine line of impact, tempering the suggestions of religious iconography with more grounded imagery to avoid romanticizing the figures. The “Saints” triptych includes shadows rendered as dark halos around the figures’ rounded shoulders, but also a cross necklace and a ball cap with the fleur-de-lis logo of the New Orleans Saints. Meanwhile, as unsteadily cocked telephone poles repeat again and again as shaken cruciforms, the man in “The Flood” has a deep crease between his eyes formed by an upside down cross.
The enormous portraits are joined by smaller depictions of wreckage after the evacuation, full of water and chaos, but it’s the rare touch of minimalism that brings the brutality home, such as in “Land Fall,” a colorful flirtation with abstract expressionism. This emphasis on the human is as notable for what’s on the canvas as much as what isn’t, i.e. not only hurt endured but pain inflicted. Images of wreckage illustrate what Katrina wrought. Images of people suffering put a fine point on the man-made disaster that occurred when people in position to adequately address the crisis failed to do so. The images here communicate many things about the experience of those forced to live through the floods, but the heartache over injustice roots it all.