Jay Batlle squints into the sun as he strides from his station wagon toward the transparent door of Mana Contemporary. Batlle is a sharp vision; vivid blue khakis rolled up just slightly to reveal cherry red socks emerging from his leather oxfords (“Is it too much?”), a slender tie tucked halfway into his blue button up, complete with a tailored pinstripe vest. His thick hair looks like the night sky, dark with streaking comets of silver.
Batlle greets the staff at the front desk. Artists mingle along the hallway, still waking or perhaps just retiring the dozing creativity of their minds. Together they inhabit the vast, redesigned remains of a former tobacco warehouse (in this day in age it cannot be fine art without an abandoned warehouse) in Jersey City. Batlle began as an artist in residency at Mana Contemporary and now holds a permanent studio. In order to reach the gates of Mana one must stumble through a portion of Jersey that looks straight out of a Hollywood set of New Delhi; curries, whole lamb and incense are pedaled inside row after row of crowded, dusty shops.
Founded in 2011, Mana defines itself as a space that “unites artist studios, exhibition spaces, and ancillary services in a single location, facilitating conversation and collaboration among its burgeoning creative community.” Batlle’s studio stands alone in the cavernous basement of Mana. Sauntering down darkened hallways under gently tinkling florescent lights Batlle confides that his love for his basement hideaway is sometimes troublesome to his family. “[My wife] sometimes worries about me. I get in this weird mode…I’m not hungry until three and then I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll just push through to dinner,’ and then I get kind of manic.” For an artist known in some circles as “The Epicurean Painter”, it is difficult to imagine Batlle passing up the curried lunch specials just blocks from his underground lair.
A painter, sculptor and performance artist, perhaps Batlle’s most influential works have emerged from his Stationery Series in which he scans then blows up stationery from restaurants around the world and proceeds to use the enlarged images as the canvas of his paintings and drawings. The deceased German artist Martin Kippenberger who once filled hotel stationery with everyday documentation of his travels served as inspiration for the series.
Another source of inspiration comes out of Batlle’s own adventures as an amateur chef. Batlle’s upcoming show titled Grade Pending opening at Ierimonti Gallery on June 9 features the most recent of these paintings each accompanied by hand painted letter grades of sanitation chosen at random by the artist. “Is the grade how you’re feeling?…I don’t know. You can interpret. I don’t want to be too philosophical,” he confessed.
DJ: So let’s start off with some basics. What was the first piece of The Stationery Series you completed? How did you decide to extend it into an entire project?
JB: The first drawing was on Provence stationery about 10 years ago. I was the maître d’ there, and I saw this as a nice way to waste time between Lunch and Dinner service, doodling. The formal structure for the project came out of these books I was making at the time and still creating now. I was reacting to the sculpture I was exhibiting at the time, which was much more formal and less personal. I wanted to be more generous in my work, I wanted to give my audience as much as possible, when a lot of contemporary art is about giving as little as possible. The Stationery Series provided me a set of parameters to exploit generosity for my own gain artistically.
DJ: You’ve previously worked in restaurants? How does that insider knowledge affect your art?
JB: My performances are about service; I address the interchangeability of wealth and power, and the blurring of boundaries between the two when it relates to indulgence and excess. This structure and experience comes from waiting tables, cooking as a caterer, and running a fine dining restaurant. Personally, I have a hard time sitting at restaurants without noticing the staff and the service. It is “the dance” so to speak, that I’m interested in, and usually what could be done to make it better or worse. This constant movement or “dance” that a server or a line chef gets tangled into, can serve as a beautiful edifice for creating art. I’m interested in the idea that artists are starving until they succeed; I love this cliché that you can’t feed yourself, until you’ve made it. Now foodie culture is something as current as music and film. Even conceptual art is popular.
DJ: Do your personal adventures in the kitchen affect the way you approach The Stationery Series?
JB: This is the magical aspect of making art, so yes…. It is like the Ragu pasta sauce commercial slogan from when I was growing up- “it’s all in there.” My drawings are a paper trail of the last ten years of my life.
DJ: You’ve said you use coffee grinds and squid ink among other more standard materials in the paintings. Have you expanded your materials since or attempted to incorporate other food-based items?
JB: I went the other direction by exploiting the highest quality art supplies, pigments, oils, and paper. I like learning more and more about technique, because in the art school I attended; ideas were more important than technical skills. I still use coffee or tea in sketches, but they aren’t works that make it to the public anymore. I want things to last now, and I am concerned with the longevity of a work. This is a major difference between food and art. The things I paint stick around. At the beginning I was experimenting. I’ve discovered that I can achieve the best results when I use the most classic materials for creating art.
That said Batlle holds realistic parameters regarding the lifetime of his works. Surveying his tubes of specialty-made pigments Batlle remarks, “There’s something to be said about temporality and the fact that it is going to end at some point, like in 100 years it will be faded. That’s what painting is about, you know, it is like cooking. The soufflé that deflates.” A fire alarm sounded in Mana during the week previous and artists were instructed to exit their studios and leave work behind. Momentary anxiety tugged at Batlle until he succumbed to a more transient philosophy. “When you really start making a lot of stuff, it’s going to be destroyed or lost and you can’t control that. You can only do your best to make something that’s going to last. A hundred years from now, there’s going to be like a Jeff Koon’s balloon dog missing an ear, in like the center of a desert or something, who knows. That’s inevitable.”
The artist has four large paintings from the Stationery Series displayed against the industrial studio walls. Constantly unsure of his organization, Batlle changes the series four times; crossed ankles in towering red pumps on Eleven Madison Park, a torso with perky breasts on Momofuku and a slouching man on Brassarie Les Halles float by. He holds up a smaller work. Burgers & Fries. “This one has got a nice name. Sometimes I make drawings and it’s like, I Fucked Your Mother.” Batlle takes a moment to reflect in front of a large-scale work on paper from The Standard. “Someone thinks this looks like a head, I was thinking it’s like three people: a woman, a dog and a man stuck inside a TV from the 1950’s. There’s not a narrative in mind when I layout the paintings, but narratives inevitably come out of [my work]. It’s weird, there is some sort of collective unconscious.”
DJ: Many of your latest pieces use the primary colors. What drives that intentionality?
JB: I was looking for a direct palette in my painting, but also- I recently had a little girl, and you see what they can do with basic color without any training, and you wonder how to get back to that. It’s a primal thing I guess.
DJ: Some of the stationery you use comes from restaurants with a long New York legacy while others are fairly new. How do you account for that in your work?
JB: Once the structure is set up, I allow myself to be intuitive. I don’t really have a plan. It’s very similar to ordering a meal off a menu. You arrive at the restaurant and you are inspired by the choices on the menu, while at the same time the carte du jour was already laid out by the chef before, so your choices are limited, but you feel free to choose; how many courses, what to start with, what to end with, and what to drink…Freedom in limitations.
Along with the more recent additions to the Stationery Series, Batlle also displays older works around the studio including two enormous paintings from The Minimalist Series he did eight years ago. For the Minimalist Series Batlle would take Mark Bittman’s weekly New York Times recipe, blow it up and appropriate an art historical image on top of the words. “I kind of did it as a joke about conceptual art and made it all black and white. This notion of serious art.” While he has sold most of the series, Batlle pointedly hangs on to the two giants leaning against the walls. “They’re kind of like my savings account. Jasper Johns always says, ‘Keep some of your work.’”
DJ: One last question. The motif of the shoes is repeated in your paintings. What is the significance of that image to you?
JB: I like high heels and espadrilles; they are fun to draw, and people seem to relate to them in a different ways each time I use them. Heels have certain social signifier I think most people understand. I have a foot fetish as well…but that is a secret.