“Katrina” sounds accusatory to me now. It used to be a comforting word. I knew this woman named Katrina enough to ask to share her table at coffee, on one of those outrageous days when people who don’t normally drink coffee are bored or cold or whatever and they invade my coffee sanctuary as stupid as Napoleon in Russia. Now the word is an indictment– in any tone.
So when I went to the Kemper yesterday, and saw a label for David Bates’ show that said “Katrina,” I was deflated. I hadn’t come to an art museum to confront political realities or national catastrophes. I didn’t find the presentation too accusatory, though. One large panorama of black faces is confronational, for sure, but I found a variety of moods across the walls. There were scenes of the flooded New Orleans. The compositions and the execution were so lovely that I could only enjoy them. The lines were nice slashy ones, like Van Gogh’s, and something of the colors reminded me of our great Thiebaud tugboat at the Nelson.
Because I found New Orleans the most romantic city on the planet (no, not Paris– too sophisticated, so you’re always slightly nervous, and not Rome, which is just sex on plates), the destruction looked romantic to me, too. Ravaged. You screamed through it, but you wanted it. (Of course no one in New Orleans asked for that or wanted that, what a horrible idea! I’m just talking paintings here, in my aesthetic vaccum.)
The portraits also impressed me, technically speaking. I can introduce colors that pull at each other, and pound my way to a composition I won’t mind looking at on my wall, but the subtleties of color mixing and juxtapositions escape me. Bates uses the lavenders and gasoline greens on faces right where they belong, to show how interesting the planes of faces really are (at least to fellow humans). They kept my eye busy and curious all across a gloomy visage. The pieces stood up as paintings without any political fuel.
Maybe this is all me, though: maybe the show seems both accusatory and political to others. I don’t find a great lesson in the Katrina disaster. All societies have an underclass, a group denied and shuffled aside and asked to go without. And every society treats is rich better than its poor. We’ve come a long way toward creating more equality in human civilization. We also have a long way to go. I’m glad to participate in making things more equal, although I don’t expect this to cause radical or even lasting change.
What I did see something of, in the despairing faces, is the bitterness of experience, and the horror of watching things change and die. Some people get hit with that a lot harder than others. For some people, great loss inspires great insight. For other people, it knocks them into a bitter, tight corner. I understand that. I’ve been both places.