Et in Arcadia Ego: Robert Bates

Aidan Dunne, The Irish Times, March 29, 2006

Robert Bates, at the Molesworth Gallery, works on an incredibly small scale. Disconcertingly so, if you happen to encounter his work first in the form of illustrations in the show's catalogue. So intricately detailed are his representational images that you tend to assume they must be quite large in reality. In fact they are hardly bigger than the modestly scaled reproductions. They are painstakingly painted in watercolour to a remarkable level of finish.

Bates lives in Kerry and has been in Ireland for 21 years. He has a distinctive, almost idiosyncratic vision, with aspects of the Romantic and the Gothic, with echoes of Casper David Friedrich, for example. He likes dramatic natural lighting effects: bright moonlight, sunsets, sunlight spilling into rocky woodland settings.

There is a storybook quality to some of this, with cabins in the forest, or figures emblematically isolated in huge natural settings, yet Bates always anchors his imagery in a matter-of-fact world and never drifts into sentiment or contrivance.

He lets his pictures have lives of their own by opting not to pin them down in terms of narrative meaning. It's up to us to work out what is going on when we see a woman apparently reading a letter close to an electricity pole on a remote country road.

But Bates is not afraid to acknowledge the exceptional beauty of the landscape: he just doesn't sentimentalise it, and incorporates those electricity poles and rain pools in potholes as well as the range of distant mountains. As an artist he has formidable ability, in other words, and intelligence.