“THE RESTAURANT STATIONARY SERIES STARTED OUT AS A WAY
TO RETURN TO PAINTING AND DRAWING. I WANTED TO MAKE MY ART AN EXTENSION
OF MY LIFE. AT THE TIME, I WAS COOKING AND WORKING IN RESTAURANTS.”
— JAY BATLLE
Jay Batlle and I have had a continuous, incessantly-focused conversation going for nearly six years now—always about art. We began as neighbors in Brooklyn, and now that we live far apart we talk on the phone, usually while Jay is driving home from his studio in Jersey City and I’m at mine in Los Angeles. Recently, I interviewed him over the phone about his new, extensive body of work, The Restaurant Stationery Series.
Graeme Mitchell: I’ve noticed in your bio that you’re a sixth-generation artist, and I’ve never asked you about that. Did you grow up around art? Give me some background.
Jay Batlle: Well, maybe it is a joke to say “sixth-generation conceptual artist,” but when I attended art school in the mid-’90s my instructor introduced herself as a “fourth-generation conceptual artist,” and I was trained in a very “conceptual art” way. Which is to say we didn’t focus on technique or process so much as what it meant to create, considering the context and the audience, and why it had a place historically. I was taught this way of thinking and working in art school—there were things you just don’t do and students learned how to “speak” about art. It was amazing and mind blowing. I loved it. It was like finding God. Before art school, I was a skater kid who could draw. Growing up in Southern California, I never set foot in a museum of contemporary art or an art gallery before undergrad. I played water polo in high school. I was the captain of the team and into Minor Threat. I was copying the Impressionists as well as Van Gogh and of course Dali. I thought if you could mimetically draw an image you were good! I think most artists start out this way.
My mother was an interior designer who changed the furniture so much that sometimes I would come home and think I was in the wrong house. My father was the number one car salesman for Rolls Royce and Bentley. I got to drive in a line of ninety Bentleys to break the Guinness world record for the longest, consecutive line of Bentleys. My stepfather was a truck driver who paid me in Del Taco bean burritos to be his assistant driver. That’s how I saved up enough money to pay for art school—trucking. So I can really relate to this story I once read: when [artist] Mike Kelley told his father that he was going to school to become a professional artist, his father responded by ripping his own hair out.
“ART IS MOSTLY ABOUT CONTROL.
AS I GET OLDER, I REALIZE THIS MORE AND MORE.”
— JAY BATLLE
GM: This idea of “where we come from is a big part of the material we mine” wasn’t exactly popular with the conceptual scene of that time, was it?
JB: I was at art school when identity politics and post-minimalism were running the paradigm. We all wanted to be conceptual artists, and an artist’s personal history was frowned upon as content. We were supposed to remove the hand—let others “fabricate” the art so we can talk about work or learn how to complain. Everything was formally two parts Donald Judd and one part Bruce Nauman. Context was probably the most important aspect. Personal pathos was far too romantic, or just too ’80s.
GM: Your work has always felt immediate to me—a defined projection rather than a searching. Do you see it in terms of looking outward versus looking inward?
JB: I wanted my art to be an extension of my life. It’s somehow both inward and outward, if that makes sense. I really think a lot about what I am doing—maybe too much at times—but some things just happen from working full time, and maybe that’s the inspiring part. Art is mostly about control. As I get older, I realize this more and more. When you are young and first starting out, you try to fight this, or at least I did. I remember [artist] Jan Dibbets coming into my studio in Amsterdam one morning and asking me, “Who’s in charge in here? You need to be a general in control of his army when it comes to your art and studio. Right now, the work is in control and you’re just an army private.”
GM: So Dibbets is saying that control is the confidence and faith to select a course. That is really what we do, isn’t it—choose one thing to care about and spend a lot of time with it? Once the work becomes about a bunch of things or, most dreadfully, about just wanting to be an artist, then it looses its sharpness.
JB: Yeah, he was kicking my ass and saying, “Grow up. You are in charge, not the art.”
GM: Speaking of growing up, we were the last pre-internet generation. For us, being a kid in a place meant being deeply connected to it in a physical way. This physicality has historically inspired art and might be disappearing. I wonder if new generations of artists are going to think the physicality of what we enjoy is anachronistic?
JB: Recently, I read Ed Ruscha quoted as saying his work and how he makes art is “prehistoric” in relation to the contemporary situation we exist in. I think it’s crazy how more and more of the time we don’t see art in person anymore. I love that art needs to be seen in the flesh, nevertheless.
GM: I figure as long as what is human remains—our emotion, namely—then so does art. Let’s talk about what you’re doing. This large body of your work incorporates restaurant stationary with remarkable discipline. How did this begin? How has it held your attention for so long?
JB: John Baldessari, a great mentor to many artists, myself included, told me, “There is great freedom in boundaries.” An artist has to find his or her corral and work in it. This took a while for me to realize: art isn’t about ideas. It’s just about working. As [Martin] Kippenberger says, “You can’t cut your ear off everyday in the studio.”
The Restaurant Stationary Series started out as way to return to painting and drawing as the core of my work. Before that, I had worked primarily in three dimensions, making sculpture and objects that were about being in debt, financially and historically. Eventually, I wanted to make my art an extension of my life. At the time, I was cooking and working in restaurants, so this seemed like a natural progression. I started doodling on menus and restaurant stationery between shifts. In due course, I started to use scale as a tool to create context and make a “painting,” or an object made of paper and panel that hangs on a wall. I have found a lot of possibilities in this template for the last ten years. I also retired from the restaurant biz while doing this series.
“I’M IN THE PROCESS OF DESTROYING WORKS.
TO BE HONEST, I ENJOY IT… I FIND THE WHOLE PROCESS
OF EDITING A FORM OF LIBERATION.”
— JAY BATLLE
GM: Kippenberger was a large influence on you, wasn’t he? You’re a great drawer, and I could see how his example would offer you ideas. You also studied under Baldessari, right? You must have been around a lot of great artists at UCLA in the ’90s, like Charley Ray too. Tell me a bit about that.
JB: I was really lucky. “Timing is everything,” as Baldessari also says. The faculty was out of control at UCLA. Charley was working on his crashed car sculpture at the time. Meg Cranston taught me theory and humor. Mary Kelly was there as well—she’s an amazing teacher. And of course Paul McCarthy’s crits that lasted eight hours. Don Suggs’ classes opened up drawing for me. Roger Herman, to whom I once asked, “How do you get famous?” He said, “10% work and 90% luck.” There were Thaddeus Strode, Sharon Lockhart and Jim Isermann, with whom I painted an Irving Gill poured-concrete house. I was also in a noise band with James Welling called Ash Burial At Sea. We used to practice in the school darkrooms twice a week.
GM: It sounds amazing.
JB: I had an amazing college experience. I remember going to a BBQ at Meg Cranston’s house and bunch of German students had made this drawing in the backyard. They pinned it on the wood fence—it said “R.I.P. Kippy.” It was after this I started to get into Kippenberger. I was so curious to see kids that devoted to an artist. Right about this time, I moved to Amsterdam. But let’s get back to how art is not about ideas.
GM: I’ve always liked it when you’ve told me art isn’t about ideas. It reminds me of [artist] Georg Baselitz saying, “Art contains no information.” That is a very beautiful vantage point to me, and one that requires tremendous control. But it’s also one of those things that’s easy to say if you’re an artist that naturally has an idea. Like Baldessari saying talent is cheap—an easy line if you’re him. In other words, you can forget the ‘ideas’ because you’ve singled out the big one. But up until then, what happens?
JB: At 39, Baldessari cremated all his early work, which he made into a conceptual work. But I think he will argue that putting dots on his photo appropriations was his ‘Newton’s apple’ moment. The dotting was an idea—it blocks out the faces—but it was also a process that he could repeat. It was also a language and history he created. I think art is a progression over a life (this is very romantic…) and this progression creates a history in the art. The artist initially creates this history, but eventually has to manage it once it has come into existence. Think of [Marcel] Duchamp. If it stands up over time, maybe you did something. I think some artists look back and want to edit, which is interesting. Not everyone gets the same amount of time—look at Eva Hesse or [Jean-Michel] Basquiat.
GM: You have just created a suite of new works, which must be freeing.
JB: Yes it is freeing, and this is part of art creating its own history that has to stand on its own over time. I will have to continue on this timeline with my work. It is a new chapter and will have a different set of boundaries—more of a tweak than a clean slate. I will use what I’ve learned from the previous rules to create new rules or boundaries. This is fun and exciting and keeps it interesting, but the Restaurant Stationery will take less of a starring role in my work.
GM: Do you like showing? At this point, you’ve a lot of them under your belt.
JB: Showing in an institution? Well, that is just great. It’s very important and maybe one of the main reasons I do this. But showing in commercial galleries has become a very different thing in the past ten years, and I would hesitate to say I “like” showing… I’m lucky because I get to show all the time. It’s just a lot of effort, emotionally and physically. Some artists make art for shows, which is dangerous and puts a lot of expectations on their new work. I don’t create this way. I make art and then the show comes and I decide what makes sense for that context. Yes, sometimes new pieces are produced to accompany the works in the show, but I’m in the studio five days a week. Show or no show, I would keep plugging away. I have to. My art has always led to the next project.
GM: When people talk to me about the process of making art as being fun or exciting, I always think to myself that my idea of art being fun is laying around and reading Auden and listening to Monk or going and looking at a De Kooning after drinking all afternoon. Making work is like digging a hole—immensely satisfying, but not necessarily fun.
JB: At this point, it’s a full time occupation for me, and I find all sides of it interesting. But it is work. I need to take breaks from it…
“I AM FASCINATED BY HOW PEOPLE LOOK.
THIS IS WHY I LOVE NEW YORK—YOU ARE FORCED
UP AGAINST SO MANY DIFFERENT FIGURES
EVERYDAY. THIS EVENTUALLY ENDS UP IN MY WORK.”
— JAY BATLLE
GM: Say you’re in the studio on one of those long, lonely hauls—what happens when you realize the thread didn’t go anywhere and the work can’t be resolved?
JB: Funny you should ask, because I’m in the process of destroying works. To be honest, I enjoy it. I used to stress out that I might be ruining something, but now I find the whole process of editing a form of liberation. We all get stuck or have a bad day, but like Picasso said, “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.”
GM: Editing to me is an integral part of the process. To delete something is to, in a way, recognize a potential by what wasn’t. In that book of Gerhard Richter’s notes you suggested to me (which I think every artist should read) he wrote that the primary concern of his work was “light.” I think it’s amazing how succinct that is, and moreover with him, how true. I have thought a lot about how to define one’s work in an elevator pitch. What would you say the primary concern of your work is?
JB: Yes, The Daily Practice of Painting—very good book. Kippenberger said, “What I’m working on is for people to be able to say that Kippenberger had really good mood.” I would say value. I’m interested in how we create value in society, culturally, aesthetically, historically and financially. My work uses this trope at its core to express the human condition.
GM: I’m not sure we have time to skin the human-condition cat, but I’m interested in the idea of value, since the word is so wide. Your work is often figurative, and there’s always been something about desire there to me, but desire and value aren’t unrelated.
JB: A lot of the content in my work is what I’m drawn to personally. [Artist] Marlene Dumas told me once to do what you like in art because eventually, if it works, you will have to keep doing it. I am fascinated by how people look. This is why I love New York—you are forced up against so many different figures everyday. This eventually ends up in my work.
GM: Say you could be offered a job or whatever tomorrow, is there anything you’d actually take?
JB: I think I would be a butcher in the south of France.
GM: What a perfect answer. On that note, I think we can say goodbye.