“That novel showed me that we have to take everything experimental literature has taught us, and then with these tools, try to create complex, lively characters.” Daniel Kehlmann on The Corrections
It’s the ambiguity that does it, the sheer angle of the thing. That’s what makes Jay Batlle’s art so utterly contemporary, so pertinently now, so ‘zeitgeist’ it deserves a double Z, and more importantly that’s what makes it work, deep down in the engine, right at the crux, keeps it running, makes it last.
Because from one angle the guy’s a gourmet chef foodie who loves those old and grand restaurants, as well as the modish new ones, and celebrates that culture through a pleasing evocation of its graphic and typographic tropes. But from another angle, come and stand over here, here where the light is so different, Batlle seems an ironic if not sardonic critic of precisely such excess; of not just the fashionable food fetishism that so grips his generation but also of painting itself, the base fantasy of self-expression through the making of marks, the very revelation promised by the draughtsman’s outlined line. A celebration of contradiction, Batlle’s art is almost schizophrenic, certifiably manic, in its simultaneous glorification and subversion of both the ‘good life’ and its longtime traditional medium of representation.
This is the same Batlle who maintains the dangerous fantasy of a sort of monstrous downtown Manhattan super-star painter as an imaginary alter ego, who loves messy old painting itself, and the whole history of painting, but comes to it from the perspective of a Californian conceptual art student trained in such tactics by the likes of John Baldessari and James Welling. Batlle has no objection to being a vastly successful painter in the highest ‘salon’ mode, whether of 1880s Paris or 1980s SoHo, or indeed a vastly successful cook or restaurateur. But he is also all too aware of the detailed construction, the minute social and cultural carpentry, the obligatory mediatised architecture, that goes to build such positions. After ‘late’ capitalism comes ‘more’ capitalism and precisely because his art would never be interpreted in such terms one can smell in Batlle’s work a super-charged, schizo-fuelled, over-ripe, outrageously loud, frontal attack upon the excess of today’s late late more capitalism, which as with nearly all of us, also loves it, embraces it, with a perverse loathing.
Batlle loves painters who are hated, such figures as Van Dongen, Dufy, Ludwig Bemelmans, even Julian Schnabel, and those who everyone now adores, of course, whilst forgetting they were also strongly disliked whilst alive and kicking, whether Picabia or Kippenberger. Those who are attacked as ‘illustrators’ or ‘socialites’, scorned for associating with high society and dubious commissions, those dubbed ‘decorative’ and ‘decadent’, those who despite our supposed culture of absolute tolerance are still instinctively dismissed, these are the ones Batlle boxes for.
Batlle has understood that the ‘transgressive’ artist today is no longer showing videos of defecation and disembowelment in every museum lobby but rather is a Royalist portraitist whose skills occasion immediate derision. Extending the franchise of the unacceptable Batlle pushes the erotics of sweet commerce, extremely sophisticated advertising, refined vintage signifiers, luxury aesthetics, codified brand winks, into some brutally garish, horribly attractive mash. For those ultra-smart consumers whose pleasure in an exclusive restaurant is as self-conscious as it is genuine, Batlle has provided a suitable soundtrack whose ultimate cruelty, harshness, clarions apocalyptic.
Here is the very endgame of high art and entertainment, cuisine culture and lifestyle shopping, Chelsea aesthetics and online gourmet browsing, retro stationery and avant-garde nostalgia, the whole damn thing has been melted down into a single painting and it sure looks pretty scary.
What we have here is a very contemporary anxiety, the same motor of which Picasso spoke, of how the true artist must have anxiety “and it is this anxiety which compels an artist to set his sights even higher so that each brushstroke constitutes a little victory snatched from the maw of defeat.” Batlle relishes these victories but also enjoys the prospect of some ultimate defeat, what one of his bravura painter heroes termed a “bouquet of mistakes”, the canvas whose very wrongness is its eventual rightness, whose provocative ambition can only be pardoned in the end by history. An experimental conceptualist led through theory and practice to a kind of fictional ultra-painterliness, a bon vivant nihilist wielding illustration and decoration as weapons of sly critique, a post-post-moderne comic reactionary, Batlle is as Batlle does, boldly magi-mixing one dynamite cocktail for our final party, our last gasp, terminal joke, end end point.
Adrian Dannatt 2015