Big log

The artist doesn't want to sell his smooth wooden sculptures. He wants to give them away, as toys. Last time that sort of anti-commerce, Santa Claus attitude about art graced this city was...hell, probably never.

Those are the smaller pieces, the ones artist Arthur Koch whittles during SMU staff meetings. The bigger ones, the impressive, sinuous, curved things he spends his real time on--now, those will cost you. Still, the work is truly satisfying, heavy, and soothing in a just-this-side-of-morphine way. Giant logs turned inside out, limbs contorted into fluid arches, stumps sliced and polished into sensuous wedges. These and more fill the space at the Conduit, and when you walk in and confront the mini-forest of shapes, you want to run your fingers over them, wrap your fists around the built-in handles, rock the carefully balanced serpentine shapes on their foundations. When art makes you yearn for that kind of interaction, it's working.

Koch's fascination with Mother Nature has, like the tree trunks in his work, morphed and shifted over the years; the artist opts to showcase both of these processes rather than squelch them. He presents the burnished blocks of gallery fodder almost as multi-layered snapshots of nature's cycle and man's controls over that cycle, yet with a reverent quality that counteracts any misgivings about Koch's attitude toward the great outdoors (or his own back yard).

"Warm Curve" juts out from the wall like a friendly interruption of space--two weighty, ochre-hued lips bending toward one another (Freudians will call it vaginal); across the room, the slice extracted from in between them sits on the floor, facing its mother--all gleaming pieces of wood. Key spots glint with high shine under the gallery's careful lighting, but Koch doesn't varnish any of his work, and doesn't need to. Natural grain and color reign here. Koch's meticulous rubbing and sanding bring it out with traditional craftsman methods.

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Two wall-relief series, both titled "Agents of Change," epitomize the snapshot aesthetic. In each, a tidy row of wood blocks gazes out from the wall so passively, you could accuse them of being purely decorative. But these chunky biopsies of ash burl and more--really cutaway skin grafts of a tree's trunk--do tell their own stories: rot and decay, axe wounds, salt and waves from the ocean, wind, starvation. From each angle, you can get a sense of what this particular section suffered and survived--the façade a solid, textured image of the surface, the growth rings clear on the smoothed sides.

Koch introduces mankind's more direct relationship with nature in his concrete pieces. Poured cement, flat gray and gravelly, intertwines with and interrupts the flow of the wood in "More Control" and "Green Belt." It's like an assault on nature's course, yet the wood emerges from the blockade with quiet victory--like when a thick tree root breaks the surface of an urban sidewalk: a conflict turned harmonious (no thanks to man), or more likely, nature resuming its cycle despite the rude disruption.

There's something so tranquil about Koch's work; after gazing at his pieces, you get the sense that creating these must have a restorative effect on the artist, a built-in therapy that comes not only with creating art, but more so with keeping his hands on nature's elements. Koch should be a very contented, calm man. He's certainly a generous one, given his "just give these smaller ones away" notions.

Down the hall, in the itty-bitty Conduit Annex, Scott Barber's alien cartoons fill the tight but friendly space with squeaky, gleeful color. It's the first show of the young artist's works that traces his move from his staple of polyurethane paintings of biomorphic shapes on abstract backgrounds to his newer love affair with drawings. The new images, much smaller than his paintings, replace the washy backgrounds with blank space or maybe the hint of a cloud or two drifting along. Penciled, gestural shapes float across the foregrounds, one or two per scene, often engaged in some sort of exchange: A pale yellow bulbous thing drips whitish fluid from what could be its leg stumps; a pastel blue organism with banded stripes has something dangling from its midsection that must be genitalia. The bubbly creatures bob and brush against one another, produce billows of smoke, and poke at one another's hefty little bodies. It's about communication, but a kind we humans can't quite explain. It's the silent language of outer space or a petri dish or a pictures-only comic book, and even as lightly as Barber presents it, we sense that the communication between these oddities is possibly more potent and direct than our frivolous spoken one. They're perfect as drawings, given the medium's simple immediacy and Barber's way with visual charm.

Ingratiating? Sure. Creepy? It's impossible to ignore the oozing crevices and erotic undertones these fizzy creatures emit: You'd reach the same uneasy conclusion if the Teletubbies suddenly started licking each other's antennae. On one wall, the project that caused Barber to shift his direction stands out on slender pins: a handful of tiny cast-rubber "animals," deep green or orange or yellow, gleaming with wet sheen and displayed like an insect collection. These are the morphed, clean-edged mini sculptures that gave Barber's more elusive painted forms a defined quality, which, ultimately, led Barber to draw them--a refreshing change.

Dallas art star David Bates has changed tack as well for his one-man show at Gerald Peters Gallery. There's something looser, more spontaneous about his newest paintings and sculptures. Bates has been charming the regional masses for years now, and currently and somewhat awkwardly, has two shows in the city--the recent works at Gerald Peters, and a retrospective of his Gulf Coast works at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary. That's probably a sign of crossed signals between the venues, and given the MAC's nonprofit status, it could be showcasing someone riskier and less established. Nonetheless, it's a mistake in our favor. Both shows are visual feasts, and this way the uninitiated can get a solid sense of what Bates is about.

The Gerald Peters show isn't so much thematic as it is sectioned into chapters. Birds, churches, plant still-lifes, and human figures, all in Bates' distinctive hand (you'd never mistake a Bates for anyone else), yet loosened up just a tad. The pieces--monumental oil paintings, framed wall reliefs, and sculptures on pedestals--still deliver his craggy, raw, and bold-line trademark. You almost picture the artist as an old man wearing worn-out Red Wing boots, wielding a big Stanley knife, and stomping around a dense forest. None of which is true. The nuances tell another story, one of a formally trained artist at the top of his game: the way the image of a plant's stalk refracts as it breaks through the surface of the water in its vase; the delicate asymmetry of his cardboard churches; the re-invented Cubism of his sitting wooden men. He references Henri Matisse, Kurt Schwitters, and rangy folk artists alike, but never tritely, and he never loses his own vision. Bates is far more thoughtful and graceful than any student or curmudgeon--his muse is in the details.

One of his most satisfying jags is his ongoing depiction of life on the Texas Gulf Coast; a number of these paintings, dating from 1988 through '97, are on display at the MAC. Salty fishermen, dilapidated bait shops, flapping seagulls, an idyllic vision of nighttime lantern fishing--these are images from a man in love with the coastal world. The powerful size of most of these works adds to the gushing sense of affection for his subject. But really, it's an unobtrusive kind of observation he's pulling off. He populates the ebb and flow of beach life with elongated, meditative men and women. They sit in diners overlooking the water; they stand on the docks and proudly display their catch; they lean over tables stinking with shiny fish to be cleaned. The bonus is Bates' two-paintings-in-one appearance, epitomized in this series: standing back from the picture gives a smooth, eye-filling effect, anchored with sure lines and warm mood--a folk narrative opening up before you. Step close to get the second effect: a tactile, heavy abstract of rectangles and diagonals, gratifying in its aggressive brushwork, confident in its balance of maritime blues and greens and browns.

The shapes here are tighter, more dense and punchy than his Gerald Peters display, evoking Max Beckmann (sans angst), or even the way a film looks in a theater when the projectionist hasn't corrected for wide-screen--stretched and threatening to break the bounds of its frame. Despite the highly stylized effect, you can hear the whoosh of the waves, taste the stinging brine on the back of your tongue. A vacation built into the art space, and a timely complement to the Gerald Peters show, if not the entire fall gallery season.

Arthur Koch and Scott Barber are at the Conduit through October 17. Call (214) 939-0064. David Bates is at Gerald Peters, (214) 969-9410, through October 10, and at the MAC, (214) 953-1212, through October 18.

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